Earlier this month the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, mapped out his vision for the HE sector over the next 5 years. Here Carl Emery looks at the implications.
Addressing the Universities UK (UUK) group the Minister set out 3 key manifesto pledges:
- lifting the cap on student numbers and widening participation “to remove barriers to ambition and meet the PM’s commitment to double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020 from 2009 levels”
- delivering a Teaching Excellence Framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching “as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect”
- driving value for money both for students and taxpayers who are underwriting the fee system “so that we ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms.”
Behind these pledges one can see the twin forces of competition and efficiency shaping how Johnson understands universities. Indeed for those of us working in HE these pledges are no great surprise and are the culmination of many conversations, both formal and informal, regarding what we do in HE, how we do it and with who. For one contribution to this conversation see the letter published in the Guardian on the 6th of July and signed by 126 professors working in the UK HE sector.
The Minister’s speech uses the word markets nine times and is infused with the language of business. It presupposes under a common sense narrative that there is no alternative to a HE education sector in service to business; the student as a customer consuming their purchased product and their satisfaction rates being read off as an authoritative measure of quality. This is an approach that one can see resulting in a Trip Advisor model of HE evaluation.
A key element of Johnson’s vision is the rebalancing of universities’ activities in order ‘to build a culture where teaching has equal status with research’. Those of us who have for the past few years watched with anxiety as more and more HE teachers energy has gone into servicing the REF will greet this intention with some confusion and many questions.
At the Manchester Institute of Education we have been particularly interested in exploring the thinking around a Teaching Excellence Framework. On behalf of the Higher Education Agency (HEA) and working through the CHERIL forum, we recently undertook a review of Teaching Excellence Frameworks with the brief to investigate and analyse what universities could learn from similar activity in the compulsory schooling sector.
Our research identified a number of findings that illuminate the complex and multi-faceted challenges of developing a TEF across the HE sector; a sector that teaches and does research in different areas to differing standards and in differing proportions.
Firstly the development of national teaching standards and TEF in UK schools took place in a very different era where there was increased finance, professional development opportunities, an influx of teaching support staff and significant salary increases for teachers. This is not where we are now in HE.
Secondly, we found HE is in every way a more complex, more various terrain than schooling with different forms of teaching and learning in different disciplines and much teaching going on outside the classroom or lecture hall. HE teacher roles are complex and diverse, not all teaching is immediately visible. Metrics need to value both the onstage and offstage activities of teacher performance. The Minister’s vision for a teaching metric actually appears to be driven by student feedback and graduate income, both of which are external to understanding the quality of a teaching and learning process.
Thirdly, the evidence base for the usefulness and reliability of teacher and teaching evaluation, as part of a TEF, is controversial. Emerging knowledge about how people learn is not always applied to help teachers to learn; performance evaluation of teachers can impede their motivation; metrics of teacher performance can be well used formatively for the teacher, but are often used summatively and as a tool of discipline. An example of the problems in this area show up in the digestion of the results in the recent and ongoing MET study (a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded study of the effect of teaching on student outcomes). Although the study implementers highly rated their research a range of prominent outside critics questioned the methodology and the study’s findings are contested.
Finally, what is put into a metrics system teaching framework determines what comes out. HE could support localised versions of TEF, developed by practitioners per institution, to capture the differing realities of each institution. We recognised that understandings of teacher performance should reflect a wide variety of teaching flavours and a wide variety of institutional character.
Finally, our research identified a lack of teacher voice and visibility throughout the school TEF conversation and practice, the same lack of voice that is evident in the Minister’s speech. At no point are the views or experiences of some of these Ministerially labelled world class and excellent HE practitioners consulted.
In conclusion we agree that the quality of teaching in the HE sector could in places be improved. In order to do that we would ask the Minister why we are not at the heart of this process sitting alongside our student consumers and our university managers.