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.

 

 

 

House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Rapid reaction to the First Amendment

by

G.R.Evans

It’s certainly a story when the House of Lords is packed, as it was on 9 January to discuss the first of well over 500 amendments to a Bill.  Several speakers noted that they were adding themselves to the long list who spoke in the Second Reading debate on 6 December because they had not been available to speak then.

When it came to a vote on this first Amendment in Committee, the sheer numbers present became clear. The Amendment was approved by 248-221. A story indeed, as the press was quick to record.

As speakers noted in stressing its importance, the result will now govern much of what follows as the remaining amendments are debated.

Lord Stevenson of Balcamara, introducing the Amendment, put it plainly. ‘The purpose of the amendment is simple. The Bill before us does not define a university, and we think it will be improved if it does so.’

Speakers on both sides had tried to find an existing definition in English law and Baroness Wolf, who had looked hard, noted that ‘the Minister had kindly confirmed, in replies to Written Questions that the term is not defined in legislation’. A couple of corners where they might have looked suggest themselves. They may be worth adding here, for future reference of all concerned.

The distinction between providing ‘higher education’ and ‘being a university’: title and substance

Baroness Wolf in a second speech, seeking to bring their Lordships back to the matter in hand, reminded them that:

Absolutely rightly, the Bill distinguishes between degree-awarding powers and the title of “university”. So it should and so it must, because we are now in a world where many institutions which are not and will never wish to be universities give degrees. Further education colleges are a very obvious and important sector.

We are also, I am delighted to say, moving into a world with degree apprenticeships.

The risk of not having a definition of ‘university’ in law, she reminded them, was that ‘we leave the decisions about what a university is to the bureaucrats of the Office for Students, who will make those decisions but will never actually have to make them public’.

This was not, as other speakers stressed, to seek to devalue other higher educaiton providers, but to clarify a difference in kind. Baroness Blackstone shared the concern to distinguish universities from a vast range of providers of higher education. For ‘many, many decades, higher education has embraced not only universities but many other kinds of institution’ she accepted approvingly.

The first existing legislative marker helps to clarify the important difference between ‘title’and ‘substance’, which worries many when they see that a company applying to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ has to do little beyond getting it accepted that its new title will not lead to its being confused with any existing university.  The law as it stands confers  university ‘substance’ as well as university ‘title’.

The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 s.77 (4)  states that:

Any educational institution whose name includes the word “university” by virtue of the exercise of any power as extended by subsection (1) above is to be treated as a university for all purposes.

Subsection (1) requires that any such entity be an ‘educational institution’ and ‘within the higher education sector’ and allows both the Privy Council and the Companies House routes to grant permission for use of the word and thus the substantive ‘being’ of ‘university’ to the title-holders.

This provision had to be adjusted in 1998 to prevent ‘university colleges’ claiming that they were substantively universities. So the clause now adds ‘unless in that name that word is immediately followed by the word “college” or “collegiate”’. (Words added by 1998 c. 30, ss.40, 46(4) (with s. 42(8)); S.I. 1998/2215, art. 2).

When Lord Younger responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, could be seen to turn to a prepared script and begin to read, but he added some reference to speeches made that afternoon. His argument was that it would be dangerous to include a definition of a university in legislation. He may now have to think again.

Teaching-only or teaching-and-research: What should a university do?

The other concern which ran through the speeches was about what a university should ‘do’.  Important here is the change of 2004 which allowed holders of only taught degree-awarding powers to gain university title, in England and Wales but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland.  Lord Younger, linking the ‘teaching-only’ policy with the objective of encouraging specialist and single-subject providers,  said:

I have  to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees and also removed the requirement for a university to have students in five different subject areas. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made to allow for a greater diversity of specialist universities in higher education, and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university.

Here too there is another bit of lingering legislation which seems not to have been spotted. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877 s.15 , setting up Royal Commissioners to revise the statutes of the two universities, stipulated that ‘the Commissioners, in making a statute for the University…shall have regard to the interests of education, religion, learning and research’. Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923 applied in its Schedule various provisions of the  1877 Act including this one.  When I was admitted to a University Teaching Office in Cambridge in the 1980s  this was still the defining requirement of the job.

Statute and statutes?

It would be a pity to end without mentioning the speech of Lord Broers, who as Cambridge Vice-Chancellor rode the bucking bronco of an unsuccessful attempt to change Cambridge’s statutes. ‘I support the proposed new clause’, he said, but regretted that it ‘does not mention governance, and whether universities not only are autonomous but have the right to determine how they govern themselves’. ‘We debated it intensely in Cambridge at one time’:

Universities should be allowed to determine their own form of governance, and some words need to be included in a clause like this to say that.

The Bill is startlingly silent on the role of the Privy Council in approving changes to university statutes, and indeed on whether it is expected that a university will in future be expected to have its own statutes at all. ‘Autonomy’ means having authority to make their own laws. WithIn those can be embedded its deepest sense of self, the identity which would ensure that it fulfilled the statutory definiton of a university which can now be hoped for.