Throughout this unexpected bout of purdah, it’s been fascinating to watch our academic elite’s prep work for TEFmageddon – set to come less than a week after the election having been delayed by its surprise announcement.
It’s fascinating because of the number of institutions that have been getting their defence in a little too early. I was always taught to be wary of this, and the gradual build up of vice chancellors, wonks, academics and sector bodies queuing up to rubbish the TEF results before they’re even out – all sounding like a shadow minister about to lose an election – has piqued my suspicion.
But the nature of the defence has been interesting too. The extent to which some of our universities have failed to recognise their structural advantages in the pecking order has interesting parallels elsewhere.
Fight the power
One the real joys of working in students’ unions is working with student officers. It’s a bit like getting into a new band right at the start of their career – many don’t make it, but a few show real spark and go onto big things.
In 2011, the University of Central Lancashire Students’ Union was lucky enough to have as their president a woman called Reni Eddo-Lodge. She was a great student representative: analytical, curious and fabulously dry, able to ask the right questions, challenge assumptions, and just be right.
Reni is now building a career as a journalist and commentator on social issues. In 2014, she published a blog post entitled, “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race” which went viral, and last week she launched her book of the same name. It’s extraordinary. As well as acting as a fascinating history lesson and visceral analysis of the way race is discussed in Britain, it shines a bright light onto the everyday prejudices built into organisations and the people that lead them. Higher education leaders should read it.
Central to Reni’s argument is structural advantage: the way in which Britain placates itself with the myth of meritocracy, and how it must be challenged on the structural privileges that might have got us to where we are.
The general argument against TEF being ramped up by some of our traditional elite runs like this. The TEF looks at the wrong things. The things it does look at aren’t measurable or comparable in the way they’re being measured or compared. And above all, they measure against an expectation benchmark, not an actual result. That’s why several members of the Russell Group are about to get Silver or even Bronze. The methodology is wrong. After all, who wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others? And who wants to admit it?
Like anyone challenged on their structural advantages and unending privilege, the response is denial. Ed Byrne, Principal of King’s College London, has complained to the Guardian that “for the world-class institutions to be classed as bronze is ridiculous”. It’s telling that we should unquestioningly accept the premise of ‘world class’. Why? Just because.
It’s a shame that the response has not included the kind of analytical, curious and self-reflective values universities claim to instil in their students. The response could be to fess up on sparse contact time, and understaffed mental health support, and the black attainment gap. It could be to own up to the fact that given who they get and given what they have, some universities ought to be doing better.
The press releases could admit that amongst the gleaming buildings and star researchers, there’s poor feedback and overcrowded facilities and too little human contact. The elite could accept – just a little bit and just for a day – that their successful graduate outputs of stockbrokers and doctors and ministers and millionaires are created by their pre-application inputs – money and power and faces that fit – as they are on what they universities themselves do in lecture theatres and labs. But they won’t.
TEF results will be an interesting moment for higher education. Mainstream press narratives about the sector have become a bit stale in recent years. We’re too familiar with the tropes about student behaviour, Oxbridge, league tables, dodgy research, and even that photo. All persist as hardy perennials in the higher ed public space. But this time it’s different. The coverage will talk of powerhouses cut down to size; of old assumptions being swept away; of shock at the institutions that many journalists studied at being usurped by – God forbid – a place like Coventry, or Nottingham Trent.
This threat to the old order may not have been intended by David Willetts, but it’s certainly a logical extension of his frustration at the neglect of the student interest. Some of Willetts’ purposeful, ideological drive may have evaporated with Jo Johnson, but it’s all still there. In finding a more objective way to measure and compare universities, he will expose those who are trading only the myths (and REF scores).
Ultimately, that’s what some of the criticism of TEF misses. Despite the White Paper’s lofty language, TEF was never really about student choice. The extent to which it will be can only ever be meaningful if it is ever done at a subject level. To judge the coming medals on the way in which they empower applicants misses the point.
Of course, TEF is not really about teaching quality either, and the link to inflationary fee increases just plain stupid. It’s a way – a hamfisted, often silly, methodologically problematic way – of saying to people and institutions with privilege and wealth and power: you might not be good enough. You should try harder. If you’re going to be the elite, at least prove you’re worth it and accept you’re not perfect.
So for all of its faults, and for just for one day of coverage, I won’t be joining the cacophony of those picking it apart. I’ll be in a quiet corner celebrating that finally someone’s had the temerity to take on the myth of the university meritocracy.