169 researchers recently signed an open letter to HEFCE and Universities UK claiming it would be “completely inappropriate” to use student outcomes data to measure university teaching quality.
The Green Paper links graduate productivity to teaching quality, arguing that the TEF, through incentivizing enhancements to teaching, will enable graduates to secure better jobs and careers and thereby deliver better value for money for students and the taxpayer.
The academic signatories claim student attainment “is influenced by a host of factors unconnected to the quality of teaching” and as such is not an appropriate metric for assessment of teaching quality in the TEF.
Lead signatory Dr Lee Jones, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, told Wonkhe “the Conservatives are apparently fervently committed to converting HE from a public good into a private investment in one’s own human capital.”
“They actively encourage students to select courses that will maximise their pecuniary ‘return’ on this ‘investment’ by releasing earnings data as part of Key Information Sets and bad-mouthing arts and humanities degrees. They will seek to include earnings data in the TEF as just one more lever to drive students down this path – even as many students resist by choosing subjects about which they are passionate, regardless of the earnings potential.”
“The value of education doesn’t lie in the capacity of a degree certificate to buy someone access to a high-earning profession. Many high-earning professions are not even socially useful, while many socially useful professions, such as teaching, nursing, childcare and so on, are poorly remunerated.”
Jones’s comments echo those voiced by a number of those in the higher education sector. Criticisms are focused on the validity of graduate earnings as a robust indicator of teaching quality and the prospect of their use bringing about unintended consequences.
Last week, NUS president Megan Dunn told the BIS Select Committee’s inquiry into quality assessment:
“I don’t feel employment data is a suitable indicator for teaching quality. 2014 HEFCE research found that state school-educated students are more likely to get a good degree than private school students, yet the Sutton Trust indicates that privately-educated graduates are on average likely to earn £4,500 more than their state-schooled counterparts three years after leaving university.
“You can pick out high-earning graduates before they enter an institution. What does this mean in terms of recruitment strategies for institutions that want to pick only the highest-earners?”
Professor Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, agrees that graduate earnings are affected by social factors:
“Many of the problems we have are that many of our students enter with low levels of social capital. They’re very bright, but do our students move into the top city law firms? No. Not because of ability, not because of the quality of the education they get from us; it’s because of their relative deficit in social capital.
“In the context of TEF, that raises the significant question: how do you judge the quality of the education on the basis of outcomes, which are in part associated with the quality of education but also the background of students and their levels of social and financial privilege?”
In its response to the letter, HEFCE stressed that BIS, not HEFCE, is leading the TEF’s development, but said that HEFCE is actively engaging with BIS on many of the issues raised:
“We recognise fully the complexities involved in the use of student outcomes data… We endorse the work of the Wilsdon committee’s report The Metric Tide on a set of principles for responsible metrics in research assessment, which we believe apply equally to any assessment of the quality of learning and teaching.”
“We have no intention in our quality assessment proposals of using student outcomes data to make crude judgements about teaching quality. Rather, we are seeking to use benchmarked data in a careful and nuanced way to support continuous improvement in learning and teaching or to indicate any nascent issues which in turn would prompt further discussion and action as appropriate”.
Universities UK told Wonkhe that it is currently formulating a response and has made no official statement as yet.
Some signatories of the letter are not convinced that opposition to the use of graduate outcomes in TEF will be sufficient to ensure a change in policy.
Jamie Melrose, assistant teacher in Politics at the University of Bristol, and Bristol UCU vice-president, commented:
“UUK has already shot the sector in the foot by endorsing the use of certain metrics in the TEF, notably retention, widening participation, 6-month destination of graduates (i.e. employability), and National Student Survey results. So, very stupidly indeed, it has already conceded the idea that outcomes data can be used as a proxy measure for teaching quality”.
Jones also suggested there will be a split among universities between those that produce high-earning graduates and those who produce fewer:
“The Russell Group tends to attract elite students who go on to well-paid jobs, in large part thanks to their social class, capital and networks. So they will be far less perturbed than those attracting lower-class students. This is one reason why the metrics system is flawed – it just reproduces existing social hierarchies in pseudo-scientific form by wrongly equating incomes and teaching quality – in reality, many ‘weaker’ universities are no worse at teaching, and are often better.
“As usual, the divergent self-interest of different institutions will probably preclude any coherent response to the consultation. Vice-chancellors would rather fight viciously for crumbs from the table than come together to defend higher education from a principled standpoint”.
Notwithstanding scepticism as to how coherent the sector’s response to the Green Paper will be, the question of the use of graduate outcomes is likely to continue to be hotly contested, posing a challenge for government in taking forward its TEF proposals.