Beware of what glisters

by
29 September 2017

The new standards are not yet a reliable guide, argues John Gay

ISTOCK

MEDALS for teaching excellence were handed out in June to the uni­versities: gold, silver, and bronze, as in the Olympics. Except, in the Olympics, only the first three were awarded medals, whereas in the Teaching Excellence Framework [TEF] all the universities were given one.

The football league tables might be an analogy: every university is put in one of three leagues — first, second, or third, and, dependent on subsequent annual performance, can go up or down a league.

A university’s position in the TEF is determined by six measure­ments: three are taken from the National Student Survey, relating to student evaluations of the quality of assess­ment and feedback, and of the academic support they receive and of the quality of their course teach­ing; one is concerned with drop-out rates; and two are based on student employment or further study.

These were then assessed against each university’s benchmark, which takes account of other factors, such as student age and types of course. Finally, there was a play-off based on written submissions in which universities argued their cases, re­­sulting in a quarter of universities’ being promoted a division — in one case, two divisions — and only one being relegated.

There were some surprises. The London School of Economics, Gold­­­smiths, and the universities of Liver­pool, Southampton, and Ply­mouth all ended up in the third division. There were also shouts of foul, owing to the promotion of a rel­atively high number of Russell Group universities.

The Cathedrals Group of church-related universities were spread across the three divisions: the ma­j­­ority were in the second division [six Anglican and three Roman Catholic], four in the third division, and two in the first.

 

SO, WHAT is the point of this com­plex exercise? Its managing agent, the Higher Education Funding Coun­cil, said: “The TEF was intro­duced by the Government to build evidence about the performance of the UK’s world-class higher educa­tion sector, complementing the ex­­isting Research Excellence Frame­work with the analysis of teaching and learning outcomes.”

In principle, it was felt appropri­ate that if funding was going to be allocated on the basis of research excellence, then that should be counterbalanced with a similar pro­cess for teaching. Furthermore, “The results and underlying evid­ence will help students who are thinking about applying to univers­ity or college for autumn 2018, and encourage teaching and learning excellence across the UK,” it said.

Certainly, the TEF will encour­age universities to raise their game in relation to teaching and learning, especially as their ability to raise their fee levels is likely to be de­­pendent on their TEF results. But how useful are the results in helping future students decide where to go?

What students really need to know is the quality of the teaching they will receive. Even at a TEF top-division univers­ity, the quality of the teach­ing is bound to vary from course to course. But, as yet, such information is not available via the TEF, although there are many more informal sources used.

How much weight can be put on the reliability of the TEF measure­ments? Certainly the National Stu­dent Survey, providing three out the six measurement criteria, is hardly objective. In addition, given that the TEF’s results will enable universities to raise student fee levels, the Na­­tional Union of Students has been discouraging students from taking part in the survey: why should turkeys vote for Christmas? It is likely that, while some form of TEF is here to stay, the coming years will employ more sophisticated measures. Good teach­­ing for a quality degree, it is hoped, will become the norm.

 

BUT the questions remains whether 18-year-olds still want to go to uni­versity. The average student debt now tops £50,000; so avenues such as apprenticeships and direct entry into employment at 18 are being in­creasingly considered as better options. Although a few students might attend university for its own sake, most hope that their three-year investment will lead to a good job.

The evidence suggests, however, that, for at least a third of all gradu­ates, this will not apply. Employers’ decisions on whom to take and whom to reject show that, time and time again, it is the softer skills as well as a degree that employers require — skills such as the ability to communicate, solve problems, and work as part of a team. Yet how often do universities make system­atic and sustained efforts to develop these skills?

This is a natural area for develop­ment by the church-related univers­ities with their holistic and values-driven approaches to higher educa­tion. It also makes marketing sense: students want jobs, and employers want these soft skills as well as a degree; universities that deliver them stand out from the crowd. But is it achievable? Even if the univers­ities invest in providing the oppor­tunities, will students buy into it all? Or does the need only become ap­­parent towards the end of the course when the CV has to be written, and the reality of the job market looms on the horizon?

At this point, careers advice is too late. When it is really needed is at the start of a three-year course; so why not bring the employers in to the induction process? Students will then have the opportunity to make the most of their non-academic time to become the sort of rounded people that can make the most of life, and, at the same time, be at­­tractive to employers.

This should then justify their financial investment in their three years at university, and make them into the quality of citizens that society needs.

 

The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honor­ary Research Fellow at the Univer­sity of Oxford and Visit­ing Professor of the University of Win­chester.

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