TEF and the reputation of UK Higher Education

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

The publication of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results this week was greeted with predictable glee by sections of the media. The Times was delighted to report that “The LSE, Southampton and Liverpool, all members of the elite Russell Group, were handed the lowest bronze award in the first Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). They shared the ranking with the likes of Accrington and Rossendale College and Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education.” The scent of Schadenfreude was thick in the air: Oh, how are the mighty fallen: those snobby ivory towers mingling with the proletarian Northern oiks. And was it deserved? Of course it was: a Bronze award meant that they had been “short-changing students with poor lectures, aloof tutors or second-rate facilities.” Our poor students, who are now paying £9,000 per annum in fees, must be warned off these snobbish institutions, who ignore their needs while pursuing their dilettante interests in research.

This account of TEF results was, of course, rather at odds with the criteria for a Bronze award provided by HEFCE, which state it is: “for delivering teaching, learning and outcomes for its students that meet rigorous national quality requirements for UK higher education.” This is in contrast with a Silver award, for teaching that “consistently exceeds” those requirements, and Gold, which is “consistently outstanding“.

Much has been, and no doubt will be said about problems with the methods used by the TEF. Indeed, the chair of the TEF panel, Chris Husbands, admits it is not a measure of teaching excellence, but rather is “a measure based on some of the outcomes of teaching.” But the general response of those involved was that nothing’s perfect, the TEF was here to stay, and we’d better make the best of it.

This is strangely reminiscent of Brexit, which is widely seen to be a risky process likely to play havoc with the nation’s economic prosperity and general wellbeing, yet is regarded as inevitable as “the will of the people” and therefore cannot be questioned, but must be embraced and treated as an opportunity.

I beg to differ. I see it as the height of irresponsibility to go along with a process that exposes our higher education system to potential for harm without considering whether those risks outweigh the benefits. The potential for reputational damage is all too evident  in the reactions by the media. Whatever HEFCE or Chris Husbands may say, it is clear that an institution in receipt of a Bronze award will be regarded as third rate. Since both the reliability and the validity of the rankings are questionable, this means that, at a time when Brexit is already posing major challenges to the sector, we are throwing in spurious denigration of a subset of institutions for good measure. Of course, one can say, it’s the fault of the media. It is clear that the Times would not fare well if newspapers were evaluated on a Reporting Excellence Framework. But the reaction of the media was entirely predictable, and anyone who doubted that they would make a meal of this story is naïve.

In other sections of the media, and in government, those who raise objections to TEF are accused of underhand motives. We don’t value teaching, or we are arrogant, complacent, and unable to take criticism. That may be true for some, but the majority of academics worth their salt will reject TEF because it is everything good academic research should not be: simplistic, arbitrary and inadequately tested. As Helen Czerski noted on Twitter: “It is the tombstone of irony in higher education that ability of universities to teach nuance, subtle judgement and critical thinking is branded gold, silver, or bronze.” And Neuroneurotic wrote in a blogpost: “The one lesson I would take from this for UK Universities, is that we are clearly failing to educate politicians and policy makers to think carefully about evidence based policy.

Another argument that keeps popping up is a version of put up or shut up: if academics can’t think of better metrics for TEF, then they can’t argue against it. Well, here’s a suggestion. We are told that we desperately need TEF because students want to have information that is reflected in the metrics. Well, why not provide the raw information? In fact, most of it, such as the National Student Survey results, is already publicly available – and indeed in a more relevant subject-specific form. It’s already established that higher education institutions should make available online information about details such as their course content, entry requirements, and drop-out rates. They could also be invited to include on their websites the kind of detailed narrative account of their teaching practices that was submitted to the TEF. All of this could be done without any need to convene a committee to sit down and ponder how to condense all this rich multifactorial information into three categories – applied not to the teaching of a specific subject, but to the entire institution.

I have written previously about the fiction that the TEF was developed in response to demand by students.  Unfortunately, the true reason for reducing teaching evaluation to this drastically clumsy and gross 3-item scale is to have a means of exerting control by using it to determine fee levels. We have to ask ourselves whether the vice-chancellors of our universities are guilty of neglect for taking that bait and going along with a scheme that poses such risks to the reputation of our higher education system.




The man who sighed too much

Opinion piece by Howard Hotson, October 29th 2014

docherty photo JS49180226 Professor Thomas Docherty

‘Professor suspended from top university for giving off “negative vibes”.’ Thus read the headline in The Telegraph on Friday 24 October.  ‘Professor at top university was suspended for nine months after he was accused of sighing and being sarcastic during job interviews’: this was the Daily Mail’s take on the same story. Other charges against the culprit, Warwick’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Docherty, The Mirror revealed, included ‘making ironic comments’ and ‘projecting negative body language’. By Monday, London commuters could read about the ‘Professor suspended for nine months for “inappropriate sighing”’ in Metro, the free newspaper ubiquitous on the Underground. Readers of the Birmingham Mail had been informed of the story on Thursday the 23rd, two days after it broke in the Times Higher Education magazine. Together these stories have provoked hundreds of comments, thousands of ‘shares’, and innumerable tweets.

Over the weekend, news of the grounds for Docherty’s nine-month suspension began to go global. Inside Higher Education picked up the story under the headline, ‘Suspended for Irony and Sighing’. So did Higher Education Faculty News, an organ of the American Association of University Professors, together with academic blogs like Education Watch International, The Research Whisperer, and College Misery. University blogs in Oregon and Michigan are beginning to relay the tale, as are news outlets as far afield as Kansas, Zimbabwe and Singapore.

Even the risk of suspension cannot disguise the irony of the situation. In late September, Warwick was trumpeting its selection as ‘University of the Year’, in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for 2015. One month later, this national publicity bonanza has been overtaken by an international publicity disaster of its own making.

Warwick officials took on one of the most outspoken critics of the new authoritarianism of UK university management; yet they did so on a trumped-up charge of ‘insubordination’. In doing so they have made themselves a textbook case of precisely the kind of autocratic managerialism Docherty has been describing.

While refusing to discuss the grounds of the suspension, the University insisted that Docherty was not suspended in order to silence his outspoken criticism; yet it turns out that the issue of free expression – verbal and non-verbal – was part of the case against him.  In a genuinely liberal intellectual environment, the attitude any individual takes with regard to a speaker – whether a student in tutorial, a seminar speaker, or a candidate – is a matter for individual judgment, and so (within broad limits) is the question of how they choose to express that attitude. If others find a colleague’s behaviour discourteous, they are free to tell him so. Instead, Warwick’s senior management hired corporate lawyers to argue that behaviour of this kind was grounds for dismissal.

Moreover, Warwick’s management showed their hand even more clearly when they forbade Docherty from attending a conference devoted to the republication of E.P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd., or to address the conference by Skype, or initially even to have a letter from him read out to the gathering – although on this point the University eventually relented. Given that Thompson’s book was a prescient discussion of the legal battles waged by Warwick in 1970 to prevent the publication of evidence that it was spying on its own staff and students and curbing academic freedom on behalf of business interests, these proceedings were bound to be interpreted by many as thinly disguised censorship, plain and simple.

Justice for Thomas Docherty is good news for higher education in general. Reputation managers in other universities might have been tempted to emulate these tactics if Warwick had been successful. Now they will  think twice. But serious damage has also been done – how much remains to be seen.

We now know, for starters, that the ban on Docherty inflicted considerable damage on his students. As well as being banned from campus, from the library, and from email contact with his colleagues, Docherty was prohibited from supervising his graduate students and from writing references. Indiscriminate, disproportionate, and unjust measures against the professor were also deeply unfair to his students.

At one further remove, how much will the mishandling of this situation damage the reputation of an entire institution, its staff, its students, its alumni? And how much collateral damage will be inflicted on UK universities generally in the court of international opinion? If the UK’s ‘University of the Year’ in 2015 becomes an international by-word for authoritarianism and censorship, then foreign readers are entitled to ask what goes on in less celebrated institutions. One reader of Inside Higher Education has already articulated the question as follows: ‘Is it just me, or do British universities just not treat their faculty so well these days? Low pay in an expensive country, no more tenure, and now junk like this.’

Reputational damage cashes out directly in international rankings. Yet when UK universities, individually or collectively, slide in the rankings, will policymakers conclude that they are being badly managed? Or will they respond by prescribing another wave of still more radical ‘reform’?

This brings us to a final irony: although academics are liable to read the Docherty case as a parable of academic mismanagement, at least some of the readers of the newspaper articles listed above clearly read it as a parable about academia itself. For one thing, the censorship even of non-verbal communication strikes some readers as a paradigmatic example of politically-correct thought police running amok. ‘Only academics could be so pea-brained as this,’ one Telegraph reader colourfully opines. ‘They deserve the rough edge of nanny’s tongue and early to bed without supper for behaving in such an infantile way.’ ‘Remind me again’, another comments: ‘Why are we, the British public, still being made to fund these dictatorial Marxist cabals, and why has the government not taken a hint from the private sector and outsourced all higher education abroad?’ So when university governance is wrested from academic control and remodelled along corporate lines, the resulting authoritarianism is to be explained by reference to the perennial Marxism of academics generally? And once the funding burden has been removed from the shoulders of current taxpayers and loaded squarely onto future graduates and taxpayers, current taxpayers should nevertheless insist that privatization be followed by outsourcing?

It would be easier to dismiss this kind of thing as puerile polemic, were it not for the fact that similar logic is evident in the recent opinion piece by Jamie Martin, advisor to former educational secretary Michael Gove, on how UK universities ‘Must Do Better’.  ‘[U]niversities and government,’ he argues, for instance, ‘are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment …. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.’

So when it turns out that student-customers are not the perfectly well-informed and purely rational agents whose collective decisions can ‘drive up standards’ and ‘drive down prices’ across the university sector, when it turns out instead that they are vulnerable to being duped by the new breed of corporate university which regards them essentially as units of income and output, who is to take the blame? Evidently, anyone but the policymakers who imposed the marketized conception on the university in the first place.

It appears that we are entering a new phase in the debate over British higher education, in which the failures of the botched ‘reforms’ of 2010-12 are recycled as justification for a further round of even more radical measures.  For further analysis along these lines, the reader can turn with profit to Dorothy Bishop’s recent comments on Martin’s piece.


Howard Hotson will deliver the CDBU lecture at Royal Holloway on Tuesday 25 November 2014 on ‘Big Business at the Heart of the System:  Understanding the Global University Crisis’.  It will be at 6 p.m. on 25 November, in room MX001 in the Management Building Annexe at Royal Holloway.  For further details contact: A.Sheppard@rhul.ac.uk.