Oh, please: Not yet another ‘excellence framework’ for higher education

The Department of Business Innovation and Skills, which in a sensible world probably wouldn’t be responsible for our universities, has firmed up its earlier proposals and is now pushing ahead with some major changes to higher education.

One which I welcome is making it rather easier for institutions to become higher education providers. New forms of competition, some from commercial enterprises bringing technical and pedagogical innovation and opening up new ways for people to access HE, are overdue. The present system of accreditation is too cumbersome and relies on new providers essentially copying the institutions which mentor them.

But most of the other proposals are deeply disappointing. The government has recognised that teaching at many universities – or, more accurately, parts of universities, since standards vary considerably within institutions – is poor. It has however not recognised that neglect of teaching is in large measure the result of the overemphasis on research (much of it in arts, humanities and social sciences rather than science and medicine, where it can produce tangible public benefits) as a result of the government-imposed ‘Research Excellence Framework’. The REF is an expensive and time-consuming way of allocating research funding, when roughly the same allocations could be produced using already available metrics. It is a Frankenstein’s monster which occupies the dreams and nightmares of most young academic staff, whose careers depend almost entirely on getting articles in the right journals at the right time, rather than developing the skills of teaching the students who ultimately pay most of their salaries.

Instead of scrapping or downsizing the REF, a huge new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is being proposed, with universities’ teaching having to be reviewed by peripatetic panels which, like the QAA of yore, will almost certainly consist of superannuated lecturers with rigid party-line ideas of what constitutes good teaching, their judgment assisted by a battery of indicators of student satisfaction, degree results and employment outcomes. Past experience suggests that these indicators will be manipulated by institutions and will become less and less useful over time.

Getting good results in this TEF will be crucial, as otherwise universities will be unable to raise fees in line with inflation. Students at such ‘failing’ institutions will suffer twice over: the poor teaching will lead to lower funding and thus less resources for teaching. The inevitable downward spiral means some students will want to switch to other institutions. Consultations are to be held about how to make this easier, presumably by aligning all universities’ undergraduate degree structure and content even more closely. Degrees are already too homogenised as a result of ‘subject guidelines’ imposed from above, a kind of ‘national curriculum’ for grown-ups. Incidentally the TEF as currently envisaged will concentrate almost entirely on undergraduates. The teaching of large numbers of (in many universities, mostly foreign) postgraduate students, who many would argue get a worse deal than undergraduates, is not apparently a matter of concern.

All this is to be overseen by another new bureaucracy, the ‘Office for Students’ which will act as regulator for the sector. This will be tougher, we are advised, than the old Higher Education Funding Council, and will not hesitate to close down failing providers. Hmm. We’ve seen this kind of macho stance from governments before. I just cannot see the OfS closing down, say, a large institution in a depressed region because a small team of part-time adjudicators don’t like the lecturing style of the few lecturers they have managed to see in a three-day visit, or because few of their students get into graduate jobs at the end of their degrees. The anger of students, staff, parents, local authorities, employers and so on would surely lead to yet another governmental U-turn.

Another of the proposals is a greatly increased emphasis on social engineering, with universities being required to publish more and more detail about the gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background of its students, with the Director of Fair Access exerting greater pressure on institutions to alter their intake to meet some arbitrary criterion while the OfS monitors differential outcomes. A concern is that some definable groups of students have poorer outcomes than others, and universities will now be under greater pressure to improve their results. The danger here is that this may lead to softening of targets for assessment and yet more grade inflation.

Time will tell how all this works out, but it is not an inspiring prospect. Unlike, say, the Robbins Report – which really revolutionised prospects for universities and young people – this is a limited vision. It is a top-down initiative that threatens a whole new slew of bureaucracy and tighter regulation on a sector which, considering that the government directly funds much less of it than in the past, should be trusted with greater freedom, not less.

Two reforms which the IEA has advocated would make for a much better future than the government promises. These would be to scrap the REF and the tyranny which it imposes over academics’ career choices and professional practice; and to adopt Peter Ainsworth’s proposal for universities to be directly involved in providing student loans. This latter proposal, by giving higher education institutions a vital interest in making their students satisfied and employable, would achieve much more than yet another box-ticking, conformist bureaucracy. It is to the government’s shame that these ideas haven’t been seriously considered.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

2 thoughts on “Oh, please: Not yet another ‘excellence framework’ for higher education”

  1. Posted 18/05/2016 at 12:36 | Permalink

    You know that once they start publishing stats on gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, it’s only a matter of time before the state feels obligated to impose some sort of quota system to ensure every University meets certain minimum % in each of these categories (or else)…

    The only thing Universities should publish is what their students go on to do after graduation at maybe 3 different time periods – at graduation, 6 months after graduation and 1 or 2 year after graduation). That tells students everything they need to know about paying for a particular course.

  2. Posted 18/05/2016 at 18:31 | Permalink

    I was going to become a ‘qualified teacher’ when I was a Lecturer in Accounting at the London Business School between 1969 and 1972, but somehow I never got started on the process and in 1972 I moved as Professor of Finance and Accounting to Cranfield, where it didn’t seem to be required. After I’d been teaching (as I thought, with some success) for about 25 years at Cranfield, I did go on a teaching course there. But to my surprise and dismay it didn’t seem to be about how to teach more effectively but concerned a lot of theory about which I knew very little and cared less. It reminds me, now I come to think of it, of the recent absurd SATs questions on English grammar intended, so I understand, for 6 and 7 year olds. Talk about gobbledygook. You couldn’t make it up! About the time I retired, some ten years ago, I was informed that someone like me — with a professional qualification in accounting (the subject I was going to teach) but no undergraduate degree and no doctoral degree — wouldn’t have a chance of being appointed even as a Lecturer at Cranfield (or any other British university) today. Of course I wouldn’t want all teachers to be like me, but I’m a bit disappointed to think that in future there may be none like me! I share Len Shackleton’s opinion of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (and of the Research Excellence Framework too). Will our politicians never learn? (Who would be ‘qualified’ to teach them?)

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