Febrile excitement here in the UK last week, as the government finally produced its delayed Green Paper on university teaching and funding. OK, ‘febrile’ isn’t the best word, but some students did get out and about, to protest at the possible further increase in student fees. Otherwise, the HE sector mainly just sighed heavily and tried to work out how to tackle this thing.
The key part of the Green Paper for many was the move to establish a Teaching Excellence Framework, something I’ve discussed before (and here). This looks much like it was trailed to be: a largely metric-driven exercise, with a link between good TEF outcomes and a raising of the fee ceiling (hence the students protesting). Reading my older posts, I’m not sure that there’s much more I can add to that particular piece of the puzzle, except to note once more that it seems perverse that ‘better’ teaching should get priced up, so that those more likely to be in need of it – the socially and economically disadvantaged – are less likely to get it.
However, the TEF is only part of a much bigger plan by the government to shake up the sector. Assorted bodies will be disbanded/merged into a central authority and ‘market entry’ would be encouraged, together with its close friend, ‘market exit’. In short, a big bit of competition is just the incentive that everyone needs to strive that bit harder for their students, all made that much more real by the exciting possibility that your institution could go under.
Now in contrast to Chad’s repeated postings from the other side of the Atlantic, that’s something that hasn’t happened here in the UK. The collapse of individual institutions has been averted whenever possible, either by some large intervention, or by rolling it into another institution. The wind has definitely changed on this one, however, so expect to see more vice-chancellors making a push to escape the infamous ‘squeezed middle‘.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I’m not big on norms, so let’s just say it look like it’s a thing and we’re going to have to deal with it.
That also means that we have to start really getting into making sure two things happen.
The first is to ensure that – as much as possible – the metrics used for TEF actually support and enhance student learning. As has been pointed out, none of the ones being mentioned are really very good, either because they can be gamed or because they don’t measure anything very useful about teaching ‘quality’ (as opposed to efficiency). However, this shouldn’t stop us trying to make the best of a bad fist and work on ways to work for high quality teaching, that coincidentally hits those metrics.
The second thing is to then work on building better metrics, to replace the ones on offer now. This is much harder, as evidenced by the twin vocalisations of “we do care about teaching quality” and “that’s not how you measure it”. As too often, academics are their own worst enemies – able to spot the flaws, unwilling to take the benefits. It can’t be enough to grumble; action must also follow.
I’m more than ready to admit that this is much more difficult, because the obvious ideas that might give better grasps on teaching quality come with other problems, usually of very inefficient/ponderous data collection (teacher observation being the leading example). But again, that shouldn’t mean we don’t try.
Perhaps part of the solution is to return to the Green Paper and consider what its purpose is. As I’ve already noted, TEF is only one part of a bigger project, one that seeks to reshape the playing field that English universities operate on. As much as all sides laud the value of the sector to the economy and the soft power of the UK, there is a distinct effort by this government to step back and let nature/the market take its course.
Here once again, the choices are stark. Either sit back and see where it all ends up, or step up and try to shape this new environment. The more that we can do the latter, the more likely it will be that our interests are heard, even if not necessarily acted upon. This Green Paper is an opportunity, and one we would be well advised to take. Mick might not have got any back in the day, but we might be able to get today’s students to see that teaching quality is not only about satisfaction.