Paths, once taken, are relatively hard to get away from. Inertia, sunk costs and lack of creativity all play their part in this insight from historical institutionalism.
It’s the case for many areas of life, and education policy is just one of them.
Which brings us to the unfolding of the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Designed to match the more long-standing Research Excellence Framework (REF), TEF was the logical extension of the progressive commodification and marketisation of higher education.
Last year saw the first set of institutional-level results, which I discussed at the time. Now the government has launched the subject-level consultation, which as garnered much interest in the media.
An extensive pilot programme is also kicking in, as everyone works out quite how you evaluate a country’s higher education provision on any kind of metric.
What’s clear is that in the face of a tuition fee policy that refuses either to work or to be acceptable to voters, the government wants to put some more of the onus on universities themselves to justify what they provide to students.
Perhaps the central metric that has been flagged in this process is ‘value for money’.
As so often in politics, you can see the idea behind it, but you can also see the multitude of bear-traps to a successful and meaningful implementation.
In the broadest of terms, everyone should always be asking whether a chosen course of action is worth it, but that relies on everyone knowing what they want, what the costs and benefits are, plus the agency to make a rational choice.
But the impression given to date on TEF is that ‘value for money’ is a much narrower concept, balancing the cost of a course to a student firstly against the cost of a university providing it and secondly against employment outcomes, measured by salary.
That’s fine if everyone understands that’s all it is, but less so if the student cares about non-monetary factors. To pick one (obvious) aspect, there’s still no measure of teaching quality in of itself.
Those people teaching in universities might also feel that if there are going to be judging by their students’ salaries six months after graduation, then they might as well stop encouraging students to pursue socially-useful, but poorly-paid options.
Sure, there’s a counter-argument that social mis-allocation of rewards is the root cause of the issue here, but even then it seems churlish to perpetuate these through such a model.
On top of all this, we know that even as people kick and protest against such reductive metrics, they also end up adjusting their behaviour. Again, to take one example, boycotts of the National Student Survey are more sporadic than they once were, and now happen within institutions, not organised by them.
All of which is to say that the moment to effect change is now, during consultations, rather than in three years’ time, when subject-level TEF rolls into effect.
If you have a view, and especially if you have a constructive idea of how to make this work in a constructive way, then you have the chance to contribute to the consultation. So take it.