Perils of ignoring consultation on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

Earlier this week, Lord Patten, former Conservative chairman, published a searing attack on the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill in the Observer, stating:

“It seems ham-fisted to turn the academic world upside down when universities face so much turbulence and uncertainty after the Brexit vote and the rhetoric surrounding immigration.”

He was supported by a cross-party group of peers, including Labour’s shadow higher education minister Lord Stevenson, who stated:

“This bill is an attempt from the Government to run a market experiment through the bloodstream of our university system, and a classic case of understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

These comments are closely aligned with the CDBU’s evaluation of the Bill, and we are pleased to see a list of 516 Amendments to the Bill has now been proposed by the Lords.

We have to ask how on earth the situation has arisen whereby a Bill is not only being comprehensively revised at this late stage in its progress, but is also receiving criticism from heavyweight Conservatives who might have been expected to support the Government.

The problem appears to be the intransigence of the Minister, Jo Johnson, who has  ignored serious arguments against his Bill, which have been flagged up many times over the last year.

Let’s start by looking at the responses to the Green Paper which outlined the main proposals in the Bill. The volume of responses to the consultation was quite remarkable: there were 618 respondees in all, including 136 Higher Education Institutions, 26 alternative providers, 22 further education colleges, 78 student unions, and a large number of individuals and organisations with a stake in the sector.

These responses were summarised in a report by BIS. In addition, many institutions posted their response on the web, including the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford: I’ve singled these out because they are our most ancient universities, and might be expected to represent an establishment view. Critical comments in their feedback anticipated the points now being raised in the House of Lords, and might have been seen as a canary in the mine by a Minister less self-assured than Jo Johnson. Consider this comment from the preamble to the response by the University of Cambridge:

“The Green Paper fails to demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of our universities and the reasons for the sector’s international standing. Universities exist to pursue knowledge for the benefit of society, through education (teaching and learning), scholarship and research.”

Are such objections restricted to the Russell Group? It would appear not. The summary of the consultation findings by BIS does not break down responses according to their origins, but it does provide quantitative data for several items where respondents were asked to state Agree/Not Sure/Disagree. These had a worrying high level of Not Sure responses, suggesting that the proposals in the Green Paper were too vague or unclear to evaluate; in addition, the rates of Disagree were higher than Agree for many items – only 6 of 24 items attracted more than 50% agreement. And where Agree outnumbered Disagree, it tended to be for questions concerning general ideals, such as the desirability of improving access for disadvantaged groups; questions about specifics of implementation of proposals received a higher rate of negative responses.  The two items marked with * concerned the link between TEF results and fees, and were among those with lowest levels of endorsement.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-09-11-40Figure 1: Proportions of Agree/Not Sure/Disagree to items included in the Green Paper consultation (See report for details of items; number in bracket refers to consultation question number).

There was also a technical consultation on the TEF, which fared no better. The Office of National Statistics expressed concern about the suitability of the metrics to be used to evaluate teaching quality, and the Royal Statistical Society witheringly noted:

“It is concerning that Figure 4 equates student satisfaction as measured by the National Student Survey (NSS) with Teaching Quality. We are not aware that there is any evidence of a statistical association between the two concepts.”

Given this level of concern, one might have expected some radical revisions between the Green and White Papers. In fact, there were few changes, except that the TEF, which had been a major (and much-criticised) feature of the Green Paper was removed from the White Paper. Because it does not require legislation to introduce the TEF, it was possible to keep its implementation separate from the rest of the Bill, so it could be steamrollered through ready for introduction in 2017.

There were further opportunities for the Bill to be amended as it proceeded through the Committee stage in Parliament. And Jo Johnson described himself as listening to feedback, saying:

During September and October, a cross-party committee of MPs scrutinised the Bill, along with over 300 additional tabled amendments. We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses from university vice-chancellors and the National Union of Students to the head of Research Councils UK and consumer groups such as Which? And now we’re at Report Stage, you will see that we have reflected on these views.

Except that none of the 300 tabled amendments were included! A handful of modifications were made to some statements to increase clarity and avoid ambiguity, but the core plans remained unchanged.

The House of Lords includes peers of all political stripes, but a key point is that many of them have extensive experience of the HE sector. They have run universities, sat on Councils, and they understand about all kinds of higher and further education, not just Oxbridge. Similarly, the CDBU has members covering a wide political spectrum, who are not always in agreement about issues affecting universities. The Higher Education and Research Bill has, however, created a united front: left- and right-leaning academics agree that the Bill shows little understanding of the nature and purpose of Higher Education and risks damaging the reputation and autonomy of our universities.

In future, if a Minister invites comments on a consultation document, he might be well advised to take notice of the responses, to avoid the kind of embarrassment that Johnson is now confronted with.

What is the Purpose of the Teaching Excellence Framework?

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.

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More Misrepresentation in the Green Paper Damages its Credibility

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

In my previous post, I queried the justification for the proposed new Teaching Excellence Framework. According to the Green Paper, research-intensive universities undervalue teaching, and students and employers are dissatisfied with the quality of teaching in UK Higher Education. I argued that evidence for these claims was lacking. I have now scrutinised in detail the case made in the Green Paper. I thought that perhaps there was better evidence buried in there that I had missed. What I discovered was alarming. I found numerous instances where evidence was cited but in a misleading way.

Here are some examples:

Introduction: The productivity challenge, point 9: Higher education providers need to provide degrees with lasting value to their recipients. This will mean providers being open to involving employers and learned societies representing professions in curriculum design. It will also mean teaching students the transferrable work readiness skills that businesses need, including collaborative teamwork and the development of a positive work ethic, so that they can contribute more effectively to our efforts to boost the productivity of the UK economy.”

A report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is cited in the Green Paper. There is just one mention of graduates in the report, on page 3. It states: “Over eight in ten employers found university graduates to be well prepared for work.”

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The shaky foundations of the TEF: neither logically nor practically defensible

*Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

I spent Sunday reading the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“, a consultation document that outlines radical plans to change how universities are evaluated and funded. The CDBU is preparing a response, but here’s the problem. BIS is not seeking views on whether the new structures they plan to introduce are a good idea. They are telling us that they are a good idea, a necessary idea, and an idea that they will implement. The consultation is to ask for views on details of that implementation.

The government will no doubt be braced for howls of protest from the usual suspects. Academics are notorious for resisting change, so there is an expectation that there will be opposition from many of the rank and file who work in universities, especially from those whose political allegiances are left of centre. CDBU is, however, a broad church, and disquiet with the Green Paper comes from academics covering a wide range of political views.

The idea behind the TEF is that teaching has not been taken seriously enough in our Universities, because they have been fixated on research. As a consequence, students are getting a raw deal and employers are dissatisfied that graduates are not adequately prepared for the workplace. However, the evidence for these assertions is pretty shaky. If you’re going to introduce a whole new administrative machinery, then you have to demonstrate that it will fix a problem. A number of commentators have warned that TEF is a solution to a problem that does not exist.

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Reflections on the Green Paper (2): Opening the Market to New Providers

Opinion piece by Roger Brown

Background

The focus of the Green Paper is not just on students and teaching: it also envisages a situation where there will be more competition among providers of higher education, and new entrants into the system:

We hope providers receiving a lower TEF assessment will choose to raise their teaching standards in order to maintain student numbers. Eventually, we anticipate some lower quality providers withdrawing from the sector, leaving space for new entrants, and raising quality overall. (page 19)

The proposal is for a ‘single route into higher education, through which all providers are equally able to select an operating model which works for them – both at entry and once in the system’ (page 42). This new single route would give:

  • Quicker access to student funding (and no cap on student numbers);
  • The ability to apply earlier for degree awarding powers (DAPs) (with a more flexible approach to track record);
  • A shorter time for DAPs assessment;
  • The ability to secure university title much earlier, if conditions are met.

The proposal is also for providers to have contingency arrangements in place that set out the approach and commitments to students in the event of course or campus closure. This would cover both continuity of provision and financial recompense. In addition, it is suggested that the OfS could support (and if necessary direct) regulated providers to consider whether and how they should exit the sector in an orderly way, where it is in the public interest to do so.

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Reflections on the Green Paper: The Teaching Excellence Framework

Opinion Piece by Roger Brown

Introduction

In Everything for Sale? with Helen Carasso (Routledge, 2013) the writer argued that the main changes in higher education policy over the past thirty or so years could be explained in terms of the progressive marketisation of the system by governments of all political persuasions, a process that began with the Thatcher Government’s abolition of the subsidy for overseas students from 1980. The Green Paper Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (BIS, 2015) published on 6th November represents the latest stage in this process. This short paper offers an initial assessment of the main proposal: the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework.

The Teaching Excellence Framework

The Green Paper implies that both quality of and participation in higher education have increased since the full fee regime came into effect in 2012. However:

More needs to be done to ensure that providers offering the highest quality courses are recognised and that teaching is valued as much as research. Students expect better value for money; employers need access to a pipeline of graduates with the skills they need; and the taxpayer needs to see a broad range of economic and social benefits generated by the public investment in our higher education system (page 18).

The main proposal for achieving these is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). We are told that:

The TEF should change providers’ behaviour. Those providers that do well within the TEF will attract more student applications and will be able to raise fees in line with inflation. The additional income can be reinvested in the quality of teaching and allow providers to expand so that they can teach more students. We hope providers receiving a lower TEF assessment will choose to raise their teaching standards in order to maintain student numbers. Eventually, we anticipate some lower quality providers withdrawing from the sector, leaving space for new entrants, and raising quality overall. (page 19)  

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University teachers: an endangered species?

Opinion Piece by Marina Warner

Current policies are imposing business practices on education, and the consequences are blighting the profession, and will continue to inflict ever deeper blight on the people engaged in it – at all levels. The relinquishing of financial support by the state is not accompanied by diminution of authority: indeed the huge expansion of management follows from direct state interference in education as well as other essential elements of a thriving society.

Last September I wrote an article for the London Review of Books about my departure from the University of Essex, followed by another piece in March reflecting on the perversion of UK Higher Education. The responses I had to these articles came from people at every stage of the profession. I had feared that I was a nostalgic humanist, but if I am, the ideals of my generation have not died. Access to education to high standards fits very ill with business models – as the strong drift towards removing the cap on fees shows. The result of the market will be an ever-deepening divide between elite universities at one end and ‘sink’ institutions at the other.

I am going to focus on those who fulfil the prime purpose of the whole endeavour; that is those who pass on their knowledge and foster the spirit of inquiry and understanding in their students: the teachers.

First, the policies that are now being discussed, changing the rules regarding Further Education in particular, will need more and more teachers. Yet throughout the profession there is a shortage, and the toll taken on those who do teach in higher education is heavy and growing heavier – economically, psychologically, socially.

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Why are UK universities still relying on journal impact factors?

By the CDBU Steering Committee

If you work in the sciences, you will be all too aware of the journal impact factor (JIF). The requirement for ‘publications in high impact journals’ has become a staple of job advertisements, and the achievement of this goal is emblazoned across research group websites as evidence of gloriousness.

The strange thing is that the validity of JIF has been questioned for many years. JIF is a bibliometric measure that was designed to help librarians decide which journals were most likely to be worth stocking. As Stephen Curry noted in 2013, even in that capacity it has been found wanting, and it certainly was never intended to be used to rate quality of individual research papers. Indeed, there are arguments that ‘high impact’ journals are more likely than other journals to publish papers that report dramatic findings that are unlikely to replicate, and to use editors and reviewers who lack expertise in the subject – the LSE blog on impact of social sciences has gathered a number of useful links on this topic.

So why are universities still taking JIF so seriously? It can’t be blamed on the REF. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) explicitly stated that for REF2014: “No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs.” Continue reading

Restructuring Politics at the University of Surrey: An Unexpected and Questionable Decision

By the CDBU Steering Committee

Last Thursday evening, academic staff at the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey received a communication from the department of Human Resources informing them of a proposal for ‘restructuring’ the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences. This was totally unexpected. The proposal in the document would lead to redundancy for four professors, two senior lecturers, and three lecturers – 57 per cent of the department. Politics would remain a taught subject within the School of Social Sciences, but would no longer exist as a named department.

Several reasons were given for this: (i) A decrease in undergraduate admissions; (ii) poor performance on REF2014; (iii) inadequate grant income, well below the sector benchmark.

At CDBU we appreciate that we can’t assume all departments will just continue in perpetuity, and vice-chancellors have to make decisions about the viability of particular disciplines. But we are concerned about the way this has been handled, which in many ways resembles the ‘restructuring’ exercise conducted at Kings College London last summer.

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A whole lotta cheatin’ going on? REF stats revisited

Opinion Piece by Derek Sayer*

Editorial Note: In our previous blogpost, we noted that while there was agreement that REF2014 was problematic, there was less agreement about alternatives. To make progress, we need more debate. We hope that this piece by Derek Sayer will stimulate this, and we welcome comments. Please note that comments are moderated and will not be published immediately.

1.

The rankings produced by Times Higher Education and others on the basis of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) have always been contentious, but accusations of universities’ gaming submissions and spinning results have been more widespread in REF2014 than any earlier RAE. Laurie Taylor’s jibe in The Poppletonian that ‘a grand total of 32 vice-chancellors have reportedly boasted in internal emails that their university has become a top 10 UK university based on the recent results of the REF’[i] rings true in a world in which Cardiff University can truthfully[ii] claim that it ‘has leapt to 5th in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) based on the quality of our research, a meteoric rise’ from 22nd in RAE2008. Cardiff ranks 5th among universities in the REF2014 ‘Table of Excellence,’ which is based on the GPA of the scores assigned by the REF’s ‘expert panels’ to the three elements in each university’s submission (outputs 65%, impact 20%, environment 15%)—just behind Imperial, LSE, Oxford and Cambridge. Whether this ‘confirms [Cardiff’s] place as a world-leading university,’ as its website claims, is more questionable.[iii]  These figures are a minefield.

Although HEFCE encouraged universities to be ‘inclusive’ in entering their staff in REF2014, they were not obliged to return all eligible staff and there were good reasons for those with aspirations to climb the league tables to be more ‘strategic’ in staff selection than in previous RAEs. Prominent among these were (1) HEFCE’s defunding of 2* outputs from 2011, which meant outputs scoring below 3* would now negatively affect a university’s rank order without any compensating gain in QR income, and (2) HEFCE’s pegging the number of impact case studies required to the number of staff members entered per unit of assessment, which created a perverse incentive to exclude research-active staff if this would avoid having to submit a weak impact case study.[iv] Though the wholesale exclusions feared by some did not materialize across the sector, it is clear that some institutions were far more selective in REF2014 than in RAE2008.

Unfortunately data that would have permitted direct comparisons with numbers of staff entered by individual universities in RAE2008 were never published, but Higher Education Statistical Authority (HESA) figures for FTE staff eligible to be submitted allow broad comparisons across universities in REF2014. It is evident from these that selectivity, rather than an improvement in research quality per se, played a large part in Cardiff’s ‘meteoric rise’ in the rankings. The same may be true for some other schools that significantly improved their positions, among them Kings (up to 7th in 2014 from 22= in 2008), Bath (14= from 20=), Swansea (22= from 56=), Cranfield (31= from 49), Heriot-Watt (33 from 45), and Aston (35= from 52=).  All of these universities except Kings entered fewer than 75% of their eligible staff members, and Kings has the lowest percentage (80%) of any university in the REF top 10 other than Cardiff itself.

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