Opinion Piece by Roger Brown
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)
Will the TEF raise teaching standards?
The Green Paper states (page 11):
To be able to make the best choices about where and what to study, individuals need access to robust, timely and objective information regarding the quality of teaching they are likely to experience and what this is likely to mean for their future employment.
It claims (page 31) that the aims of the TEF can be achieved through ‘a simple, robust system’. But to link student choices or funding judgements to assessments of quality at institutional level requires the following conditions to be met:
- it must be possible to produce valid and reliable information about the relative quality of programmes and awards in a subject or field of practice at different institutions (and aggregate them to institutional level);
- this information must be available in a timely, accessible, economical and equitable fashion;
- the information must be related to the individual student’s wants, needs, resources and circumstances;
- it must be interpreted in a rational, or at least semi-rational, manner by the student or those advising them;
- it must lead to action by providers to adjust price and/or quality.
To begin with, to be able to make robust judgments about the comparative quality of programs and awards at different institutions would require:
- the programmes to be reasonably comparable in aims, design, structure, content, learning outcomes, delivery, support, learning environment, resourcing, mission, ethos, etc.;
- the associated awards to involve comparable assessment approaches, methods, criteria, procedures, outcomes;
- the assessment judgments to be valid, reliable, consistent and fair;
- the students pursuing the programme, or interested in doing so, to have comparable starting attainments, aspirations, motivations, learning objectives, etc.
One has only to reflect on these points for a moment to see how unlikely it is that these conditions can be fulfilled in the complex, mass system that now exists in England, much of it in direct response to student preferences. In effect, it would require a common curriculum for every subject or combination of subjects on offer, with tests administered by system examiners, something that is virtually unimaginable even by the present Government.1
But even if these problems could be overcome, the other difficulties would remain:
- the information needs to be provided in advance, yet student education is a ‘post-experience good’(Weimer and Vining, 1992), the quality of which cannot be established until after, often well after, the course concerned;
- in a mass system with a huge diversity of students, it is hard to see how the information can take proper account of individual students’ backgrounds;2
- the information needs to be balanced, accurate and fair, but what incentives do institutions have to ensure this, against the need to attract students by whatever means they can (Watson, 2008)?;
- in accord with what we know from behavioural economics, students are no more ‘rational’ in the choices they make than other categories of consumer. Yet if they don’t act rationally, it is not easy to see how institutions can make the appropriate responses;
- finally, all of this assumes that the student is merely a passive recipient of their education, yet it is a commonplace of the pedagogical literature that the student is not only a powerful constituent of their own learning but also of that of others (‘co-production’). Even if all the other requirements could be met, it is very hard to see how any system of information can accommodate this dimension.
It follows that, rather than improving teaching quality by linking it to funding, the TEF is much more likely to absorb and divert institutional resources that should be being used for quality assurance into gaming the system. This would be a great pity, because there is plenty of evidence that the preference that some academics have for research does affect the attention that they give their teaching, and, more generally, that institutions are not exploiting the potential synergies between staff research and scholarship and student learning. However, there is an obvious, and much more straightforward, solution, namely, to abandon research selectivity across most disciplines.This is something that is highly desirable in its own right in enabling us to make better use of the increasingly constrained resources being devoted to research.3 An alternative, if this is felt to be too radical, would be to include the effect on student learning in the impact section of the next REF. This would correct the extraordinary anomaly – at least to those unfamiliar with the quality of British higher education policymaking – that the recent REF looked at every kind of impact except for the one – on student learning – that provides the strongest – some would say, the only – justification for conducting research in universities in the first place!
Impact on graduate employability
The Green Paper argues (at one and the same time) that there is a shortage of highly skilled job applicants in (especially) STEM subjects, and that too many graduates are in non-graduate jobs:
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 [sic] 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. (page 11).
The TEF should be a ‘good deal’ for employers and the taxpayer:
The aim is to improve the teaching that students receive, which in turn should improve their productivity and help them secure better jobs and careers. It should enable employers to make more informed choices about the graduates they recruit, providing better understanding of the range of skills and knowledge they bring from their course, and deliver graduates who are more work ready following an active engagement in their studies. With higher returns, more graduates will be able to pay back more of their loans, reducing the amount that needs to be subsidised by the taxpayer in the longer term. This is on top of the benefits to taxpayers from having a stronger economy powered by a higher skilled workforce. (page 21).
However the same difficulties that affect information for students apply equally to information for employers. In any case, the implication of the statements in the Green Paper is that the responsibility for any failure to match the supply and quality of graduates to the needs of the economy lies with the universities. But how far should universities be attempting to take account of the needs of the economy, always assuming that anyone knows what these are? Is it really the job of the universities to produce ‘work ready’ graduates, whatever that means? And whose responsibility is it to ensure that graduates’ skills are fully utilised? Isn’t the real problem the fact that the deflationary, supply-side oriented macroeconomic policies followed by governments of all parties since the 1980s have provided too few incentives for companies to invest sufficiently in upgrading their employees’ skills, as well as improving their efficiency (see Brown, Unpublished, for the full argument).
The same attempt to place the blame for historic failures onto the universities – as a means of diverting attention away from the Government’s role? – can be seen in the Green Paper’s discussion of widening participation and social mobility. There is indeed ample evidence of declining social mobility (for example, Bukodi et al., 2014). But it is clear from the evidence we have that whilst universities undoubtedly have a part to play in raising aspirations, the main obstacle to improving participation by under-represented groups is the relative scarcity of suitably qualified applicants; that the main cause of this is the very variable performance of the schools; that this reflects the segregation of British, and especially English, schools on socioeconomic lines; and that this in turn contributes to, and indeed reinforces, rising inequality (Brown, Submitted for review).
For all the rhetoric about being a One Nation Government, there is a whole series of current policies that will actually increase inequality:
- the planned further massive reductions in public expenditure will hit the public services on which the poorer and less advantaged members of society especially rely, the scale and quality of which have already been reduced in the last Parliament;
- the freezing of the top marginal rate of Income Tax will do nothing to reduce inequality whilst the freezing of the VAT rate means that the poorest 10 per cent of households will continue to pay a considerably higher share of their income in taxes than the wealthiest;
- the increase in the Inheritance Tax Threshold will increase still further the value of inherited wealth, as well as reducing the incentive to ‘trade down’ to help housing supply (cuts in the annual tax allowance for pension contributions for people with earnings of £150,000 or more could have been used to reduce the welfare cuts);
- the social security reforms announced, not least the cutbacks in tax credits, are bound to increase child poverty, as a recent Government assessment leaked to The Guardian (Butler and Malik, 2015) made clear;4
- the industrial relations reforms will further weaken the ability of the trades unions to act as a moderating force on inequality, including the lowering of wages that is almost certainly one of the main causes of our poor recent productivity record (there are no parallel constraints on the movement or withdrawal of capital by companies);
- the fragmentation of the school system will increase still further with additional academies and free schools, and there are no proposals to put the state and independent schools on the same footing as regards resourcing or esteem (Brown, submitted for review).
In Anarchical Fallacies: Being an Examination of the Declarations of Rights Issued During the French Revolution Jeremy Bentham (1843) coined the phrase ‘nonsense on stilts’ to describe the idea of natural rights. Surely, the Green Paper’s attempt to blame the universities for differential participation in British higher education can be described as ‘hypocrisy on stilts’?
- Brazil had a common exam taken by all students for a while but eventually dropped it on grounds of effectiveness and value for money.
- The first independent review of the NSS emphasised:
the need to take into account student profiles when making any comparisons using the … data, as ‘raw’ figures do not take into account the characteristics of students, their courses and the institutions in which they study may produce at best misleading and at worst invalid measures of teaching (Surridge, 2006: 132).
The same point has appeared in subsequent evaluations but, needless to say, this ‘health warning’ does not appear with NSS outcomes.
- It has long been clear that the costs and detriments of the RAE/REF outweigh any remaining benefits (see the summary in Chapter 8 of Everything for Sale?). Sector-wide selectivity should be confined to subjects or areas of perceived weakness and/or where it is desired to expand research and/or where there is a serious risk of expensive duplication of resources. Where there is no such need, the quality of staff research can be monitored through routine quality assurance, as it is anyway in preparation for sector-wide exercises.
- According to the Guardian report, the memorandum sent to the Work and Pensions Secretary two weeks before the election stated:
Around 40,000 more…children might, in the absence of any behaviour change, find themselves in poverty as a result of reducing the cap to £23,000. If these families respond to the cap by making behaviour change, for example moving into work, they are likely to see themselves and their children move out of relative poverty.
The same report quotes the Department for Work and Pensions as saying:
As the document itself makes clear, these figures do not take into account a key impact of the cap: that it incentivises people to move into work and improve their lives.
BIS (2015) Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice.(Cm 9141). London: BIS.
Brown, R. (Ed.) (2011) Higher Education and the Market. New York and London: Routledge.
Brown, R. (Submitted for review) Education and inequality.
Brown, R. (Unpublished) Macroeconomic Policy
Brown, R. and Bekhradnia, B. (2013) The Future Regulation of Higher Education in England. Oxford: HEPI.
Bukodi, E., Goldthorpe, J.H., Waller, L. and Kuha, J. (2014) The mobility problem in Britain: new findings from the analysis of birth cohort data, British Journal of Sociology, 65, 3, 1-25.
Butler, P. and Malik, S. (2015) Thousands plunged into poverty by benefit cap, The Guardian, 30 May, 1-2.
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Goddard, A. (2015) Financial risks ahead: Funding council chief raises concerns, Higher Education from Research Fortnight, 13th November. https://www.researchprofessional.com/0/rr/he/agencies/hefce/2015/11/Financial-warning.html. (accessed 15th November 2015).
Hirsch, F. (1976) Social Limits to Growth Cambridge Ma. Harvard University Press.
King, R. (2011) The Risks of Risk-Based Regulation: The Regulatory Challenges of the Higher Education White Paper for England. Oxford: HEPI.
Surridge, P. (2006) The National Student Survey 2005: Findings – Main Report. Bristol: HEFCE.
Watson, D. (2008) Universities behaving badly? Higher Education Review, 40, 3, 3-14.
Weimer, D.L. and Vining, A.R. (1992) Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.