Earlier this month the UK government published its Higher Education Green Paper which sets out its plans for universities. Here John Arnold, Professor of Medieval History at Birkbeck and friend of the Monster, offers his reaction to the new policies and their justifications. This will not be of interest to everyone, but all UK academics and those of you thinking about doctoral studies, who may have read our earlier posts on the state of the field, need to be aware of what is going on. For the uninitiated, ‘TEF’ is Teaching Excellence Framework, ‘REF’ is Research Excellence Framework, and ‘HEFCE’ is the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Gosh, isn’t it exciting finally to see the Government’s Green Paper? Turns out some rumours were true – there will be a TEF, say bye-bye to HEFCE – and others not so much (REF will live on). There’s quite a lot of it to wade through, but – regarding TEF in particular – as one colleague said in a management meeting earlier this week, ‘it’s not actually as bad as all that’.
And of course that’s right. Who could object to ‘putting students at the heart of the system’, and who would not want us to value teaching as well as research? The starting point for TEF is a mild adjustment to something we already do, i.e. institutional audit for quality. So – nothing to worry about here, and perhaps some things to celebrate?
The devil is in the detail of course – and, given that this is a Green Paper, quite a lot of that detail is not yet in place. Apparently it will involve expert panels conducting peer review; and that’s of course great, because we all love peer review. Though, that bit of REF has been, well, a bit costly? Nonetheless, if we all engage positively, I’m sure we’ll end up with a system that is only mildly bureaucratic, that distributes funds around the sector so that ‘pockets of excellence’ (to quote the elder-brother, the REF) are fairly rewarded for their teaching, and students feel the benefit. Wonderful!
But, given that this is a Green Paper – a set of proposals, rather than a fixed legislative programme – perhaps we could also take a moment to step back, have a look at the bigger picture, just, y’know, to check that we’re doing the right kind of thing, for the right reasons. Rather than – say – about to embark on a potentially hugely costly bureaucratic exercise that might have hideously large unexpected consequences.
So, starting from basics: why do we need something like the TEF again? The Green Paper suggests three main reasons: (1) because industry requires graduates with ‘the right skills’; (2) because ‘there is some evidence’ that research-focussed institutions let teaching sit on the back burner; and (3) because students ‘demand value for money’ now that they pay fees (and whilst some of them will of course get that value through the graduate premium that they tend to enjoy in their future careers – which was part of the original justification for fees – it turns out that some of them, ah, won’t).
Can we just check those three reasons over for a moment? Only because it would be a horrible shame to launch off all enthusiastically with something as shiny, new, and brave (and therefore of course as untested, unclear and vague) as the TEF without double-checking that it would achieve what it intends.
So: industry requires graduates to have certain skills. Might perhaps be said that some training could in fact be the job of industry itself; but, let’s be generous, and assume that they mean ‘skills’ more generally, such as communication, critical thinking, analysis of evidence, and so forth. Is there evidence that universities fail to help graduates develop these skills? I’m sure there is; it’s just that none was mentioned. And actually most universities I’ve had contact with do seem to put quite a lot of effort into teaching those things. But, hey, let’s not be picky: perhaps what is meant are more remedial skills, such as numeracy, statistics, spelling, turning up to work on time… But thinking about it, I have to say I’m really not quite clear how the TEF is going to help there; unless it’s that the government wants us to embed these kinds of skills in everything we do, every year, for all students. Are we sure they – those ‘at the heart of the system’ – would want that though? (NSS scores depend in part of students’ subjective happiness with what they’ve just received, and I recall now another colleague in the same management meeting noting that no student who has taken a stats course is very happy about it; but that nonetheless it may in fact have done them some good).
OK then, what about the ‘research unis ignore teaching’ thing. This even has evidence cited in support, with an actual footnote, in the Green Paper itself. Great! I was so enthused by that, I went and read it. It’s a piece by Graham Gibbs from 2010 written for the HEA. So – hey – pretty recent, and by someone definitely engaged with the sector. But, actually, when I found the passage mentioned, it’s a little bit disappointing. Turns out Gibbs was basing it on work published in 1993, and on the experience of MIT and the National Science Foundation – that is, in the US. Are we sure this applies to us here? Really sure? (And by the way Graham, a bit disappointed there in your sense of what constitutes ‘evidence’; not sure we’d have graded the piece very highly in my own institution, in which we’ve always thought we were pretty enthusiastic about both teaching and research.)
But we can of course be certain that ‘students will demand value for money’. So, whatever the other weaknesses, a system which rewards excellent teaching by allowing institutions to charge more money is quite clearly … oh, hang on a second. Students who get into better institutions, ‘better’ on the basis of NSS scores and other metrics, have to pay more. Um. Are we sure that works – works for them, I mean? The students? Those ‘at the heart of the system’?
Well, a final bit of comfort: the proposal says that those who achieve a reasonable TEF result are allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation. Which at present is running negatively. Which means that very happy students in excellent teaching-focussed institutions who do well at TEF will be able to lower their fees. I think. I don’t know, I am still a bit confused. Why are we doing this, again?