Opinion Piece by Joshua Forstenzer (Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education, University of Sheffield)
The higher education Green Paper is a radical document. From its proposed rework of the higher education sector’s governance and regulation structure, to its plans designed to introduce greater competition between newly formed private providers (giving them greater access to university status and degree bearing capacity) and public universities (ridding them of the responsibility to respond to Freedom of Information requests), the Green Paper presents a series of sweeping changes to British higher education. However, nowhere is the Green Paper’s radical potential more directed at the very core of university life than in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). That is why this report focuses exclusively on the TEF.
The general ambition of the TEF is to rebalance ‘the relationship between teaching and research’ in universities and to put ‘teaching at the heart of the system’, by introducing a teaching quality assessment mechanism using core metrics and qualitative evidence. In exchange, universities deemed to have ‘excellent’ teaching will be rewarded with the right to increase undergraduate fees in line with inflation. Although there will be a technical consultation about the exact metrics used in the TEF, it will start with three readily available common metrics, namely: Employment/Destination; Retention/Continuation; Student Satisfaction indicators from the National Student Survey (teaching quality and learning environment).
While the government has sought to depoliticise the TEF, there is a more fundamental set of political and ethical questions about the purposes and social value of higher education that needs to be at the heart of this debate. Indeed, over the last few decades, much has been written about the overall trend towards marketisation in British higher education. This report proposes to understand the TEF as a policy proposal forming part of that wider trend, by considering the following criticisms: the TEF is not really about teaching excellence, but about fees; the TEF does not serve students, but an imagined group of employers; the TEF ignores the wider public benefits of undergraduate education.
The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) today submitted its response to the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“.
We undertook this exercise in good faith and with good will since the focus of the Green Paper is on issues close to the heart of our founding values: how to assure the continued high quality of university education in the UK, and how to ensure wide and fair access to higher education. One of our aims as an organization is to provide expert, insider advice on, and responses to, government policy proposals that look to build on the already considerable achievements of UK higher education. What our close analysis of the Green Paper has revealed, regrettably, is that ‘consultation’ is a misnomer, since in its content and wording the document reveals time and again that the recommendations, far from being proposed as possibilities, are assumed by the authors of the Green Paper to be acceptable and to be awaiting implementation.
Equally, if not more worryingly, the quality of the arguments, of the evidence used, and of the presentation of the recommendations, is inadequate. One of the chief policies – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – is put forward to address putative problems, without providing any evidence that these problems exist. The proposed TEF would be an expensive and bureaucratic system that would entail increasing complexity and disruption for years to come. The use of proxies, such as the NSS or graduate income, for teaching excellence is at odds with the ethos and values of education and scholarship. Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take). This is to misunderstand how universities work; to ignore the fact that unlike profit-driven organizations, the idea – and subsequent success – of our UK universities is rooted in staff and students working not towards a transaction but towards collaboration in the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, and truth.