New Brave New World (again)

A university, yesterday

Like the ticking of a rather slow clock, we’ve just had the publication of a White Paper on Higher Education here in England and Wales. This comes after a long consultation process that stretches back into the previous Parliament and which leaves as many questions open as it addresses.

I’m not going to run through all of it because a) it’s very long, b) not all of it relates to L&T and c) I can’t face it: there’s lots of good pieces here and here. But I will update on the famous Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which I’ve written about before (here, here and here).

For those of you who have managed to avoid this idea so far, firstly my congratulations: essentially, it’s seen as an equivalent of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), trying to provide some judgement on the quality of teaching provision in a way that is comparable across institutions and disciplines. In so doing, it aims to increase transparency for students and to drive up standards.

As with all good ideas, the operationalisation has been the problem: how do you actually do this?Interestingly, the White Paper doesn’t really resolve this. Earlier plans had talked about using metrics including student satisfaction surveys, student retention and graduate employment rates, all of which suffer from not actually measuring any teaching, only outcomes. Of course, calling it a Teaching Outcome Framework isn’t very politic, especially if you’re a right-wing government that’s already battling off accusations of being elitist.

The White Paper keeps those three metrics, but talks about allowing the submission of further quantitative and qualitative materials, but these are not specified, as there is to be further consultation on the matter. And as before, success in TEF will be linked to the ability to raise tuition fees by the rate of inflation.

Perhaps I’m cynical because I’m currently reading The Power Broker, wherein there is much creative use of regulations and ordinances to achieve somewhat nefarious ends. But what I think is happening here is actually something else and something that reflects on wider issues in L&T.

In essence, we find ourselves facing a McNamara fallacy, whereby we confuse that which can be measured with that which matters. In the TEF’s case, all three main metrics can be gamed more efficiently by more selective admissions policies than by ‘better’ teaching: we just stop accepting students who might have more difficulties with HE study, and we stop recruiting to subject areas with poor career prospects. That might be good for agendas around making universities more commercial in outlook, but it doesn’t necessarily drive up standards.

But similar processes can be found inside universities. Think of the various metrics used to judge your teaching and many of them actually focus on something somewhat different: the satisfaction of your students, the grade curve, the number of students taking your elective. All important, in their own ways, but not about your teaching.

To be clear, this isn’t about some mystical ‘art of teaching’ nonsense, unknowable and unmeasurable. It’s about checking that we align actions and assurance. Peer observation would be a good way to go, but it’s very cumbersome, so we might think about measuring the amount of L&T training staff undergo each year, or involvement in L&T research (which might also be good for REF).

Certainly, there are no easy answers: the past years have demonstrated that all too amply. But if we don’t get ourselves involved now, then we risk having to live with/work around new structures that really do nothing to help improve what we all do.