TEF Times: 2nd Reading of the HE Bill

In July 2016 we are contemplating a new period of instability for universities in the UK, and with the passing of the 2nd reading of HE Bill, things could quickly get a lot worse. The EU Referendum result has already created uncertainty regarding the future of much of our research funding. It seems there is much uncertainty at the top of UKHE: Universities UK (‘the definitive voice of UK universities’) has asked for the government to press the pause button on HE reform , Meanwhile, the vice-chancellors of Nottingham Trent and Exeter Universities argue for forging ahead with reform and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Maddalaine Ansell, CEO of the University Alliance, appears to agree with the latter in her prediction that the HE Bill will take the sector to calmer waters.  Ansell’s premise is that there will be a benefit from having all legislation relating to HE encompassed in one piece of legislation: The Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Except it won’t, of course. A moment’s reflection allows us to list student loans, students with disabilities, and academic freedom – all of which have separate legislation. Additionally, Ansell appears to overlook the added complications of teaching and research which will now be overseen by different government departments since Theresa May’s July ministerial reshuffle. It is a complicated picture, and I cannot see any advantage to deepening it.

Let us remind ourselves just how disruptive these changes proposed by the White Paper entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE) will be. They include an invitation to new private ‘challenger institutions’ who may be granted degree-awarding powers more quickly than previous regulation allowed. There are changes proposed to governance, academic freedom and protections against arbitrary dismissal which appear to infringe the historic autonomy that universities enjoyed from government. A critique of the proposed changes can be found in an Alternative White Paper (AWP), authored by a group of concerned academics can be found here.

The most unnecessary and wasteful plan in the White Paper is for a Teaching Excellence Framework. This has been proposed to correct supposedly ‘lamentable’ teaching (AWP p28). The paragraphs which outline how this will work display some baffling logical linkages. Here are some of the assertions made in the paragraphs which outline the justification for the TEF:

  • higher education leads to better employment outcomes, but these outcomes are not consistent;
  • there is considerable variation in employment outcomes and employability amongst subjects and across institutions;
  • students often enter HE with little information to guide their choices;
  • students often say they would have chosen a different course;
  • the importance of students having access to a wide array of work experience opportunities;
  • a recent IFS study also found huge variance in graduate earnings depending on choice of subject and institution, as well as background;
  • higher average earnings mean that graduates make an important contribution to society through their tax revenues;
  • employers and HE providers working together on curriculum design, and graduates having the ‘soft skills’ they need to thrive in the work environment. (SKE p42).

Apparently, the answer to all of these is the TEF which they claim will raise teaching standards. From 2018/19, an award of excellent or outstanding will permit an HEI to increase its fees in line with inflation. Others, even those meeting expectations, will suffer various degrees of attrition and their students condemned to a ‘choice’ of an educational resource eroded by inflation.

The government remains confident that good teaching can be measured on an institutional basis, but the first point to emphasize is that these measures are, as the White Paper admits, proxies, not measures of good teaching which transpires in classrooms and other learning contexts.

“Such things can be measured: students assess their satisfaction with their courses, retention rates are a good proxy for student engagement, contact hours can be measured, employers choose to sponsor some courses, or work with some institutions, because of the industry-relevance of their offerings, and employment rates can be measured. Some of these metrics are of course proxies – but they directly measure some of the most important outcomes that students and taxpayers expect excellent teaching to deliver. And we recognise that metrics alone cannot tell the whole story; they must be benchmarked and contextualised, and considered alongside the additional narrative that can establish a provider’s case for excellence”. (SKE p46)

Secondly, nowhere in the White Paper is there any evidence of so-called lamentable teaching. In fact the published NSS figures show the opposite. Taken nationally, the average figure is extremely high at 86% (England 2015 NSS results) with a rather small range of scores. So why, asks Dorothy Bishop, is there any need for a TEF?

It is hard to avoid the implication that there is likely to be a shift in the direction of prioritising graduate earnings, and indeed, it is one of the proposed measures as the TEF moves towards “a more granular and informative assessment of graduate outcomes” (SKE p48). Possibly the best expose of this misguided proxy measure was the study published in April by the IFS. It demolishes graduate salary as a metric, with its finding that “Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.”  Although this study is acknowledged in SKE, the logic is not absorbed. If we can assume that excellent teaching will not be restricted to more socially advantaged students, what relevance is there to measuring graduate earnings? We can detect an implicit threat in the White Paper that the government may seek to pressure universities to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’, i.e. graduates who are able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their student loans. That, then, is the real purpose of this metric. Purely ideological – your graduates don’t pay back – your course is closed.

“In creating the OfS, the regulation of higher education will be restructured, shifting from an outdated, top-down model of a funding agency to a market regulator clearly focused on the student interest. We will give the OfS an explicit duty to promote choice and competition, which will increase quality and efficiency in the sector, and will expect the OfS to work closely with the Student Loans Company and Government to ensure the decisions it takes have regard to affordability and deliver value for money for the taxpayer”. (SKE p63)

In 2017/18 the TEF will be run on a voluntary basis. A ‘provider’ can opt in, presumably if it wishes to establish a good reputation for teaching. A mock league table of benchmark-adjusted metrics published by the Times Higher showed that the Russell Group universities were eclipsed by a Midlands triangle of Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort universities. But this could also be part of the script. The government is creating the conditions whereby the Russell Group flounce out of the TEF and follow the incentives towards privatisation. It is only a matter of time before the elite universities follow their counterparts in Australia and start charging variable fees which will have nothing to do with teaching quality and everything to do with accrued reputation – something which the White Paper claims it wishes to dismantle. Rather than providing concrete information on which students can base their choices, this uninformative snapshot will leave students confused between choosing between the dodgy dossiers of established reputation and the imposter proxies of the TEF.

The TEF will do nothing to increase good teaching, curtail bad teaching or provide students with any more guidance than they already have. And if the REF is anything to go by, it will involve escalating costs and a scale of wastage which makes older, experienced academics weep with regret at what could be achieved if only the money were spent wisely. The cost-benefit analysis is provided by Dorothy Bishop here.

Universities have gone along with the REF because (up to now at least) there were reputational, even if few financial, gains to be won. The TEF allows for little financial gain, and also looks to be repeating some of the reputational mistakes of the early QAA subject reviews which denounced some subjects as failing. The TEF, even when it launches its disciplinary-level ‘granularity’ will not be a ‘game changer’.

Even though universities now have the tools to immediately individualise TEF scores of student satisfaction, nobody is going to be poached by an HEI for their superior teaching scores. Similarly, I would imagine that few academics will be to be tempted to move to a stronger teaching department. And bear in mind, academics have limited agency to affect outcomes such as retention, student satisfaction and employment. Students may be very satisfied with individual teachers, while perceiving elements of the course to be disappointing, funding to be inadequate, accommodation too expensive or the claims of family or paid employment to be stronger.

For universities it is another hurdle to be surmounted. A promised tuition rise in line with inflation will be quickly consumed in the arms race to enhance the institutional image. But the government’s nudge unit will clock up another win as soon as it achieves the desired outcomes; privatisation of an elite tier of universities free to charge whatever they wish, and perhaps, the closure of a few universities which have widened participation, but failed to compensate for the calculated upward distribution of wealth which has been part of the neoliberal project. Whether the HE Bill is creative disruption or reckless joyriding remains to be seen.

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3 thoughts on “TEF Times: 2nd Reading of the HE Bill”

  1. Really pleased to have discovered your blog Liz. It is a great read.

    I have been in several formative academic management meetings on the TEF and have been surprised how conversations have focused on implementation and administrative process of managing through a supposed inevitability.

    Having spent some 20 years in the commercial world prior to joining academia it puzzles me that little intellectual energy is spent on clarifying what we are talking about before rushing around deciding things to do.

    As an academic in a business school in the field of marketing management I agree that much of the TEF, as you carefully explain, is predicated on undeclared marketing and management language principles and practices. I wonder how many colleagues are aware how much conventional marketing management language, and its principles and practice are being seriously undermined by contemporary thinking and research in this area of management?

    Based on my practitioner experience, (with 8 years as board director in the gaming industry) any commercial organisation would have clarity on its reason for existence and this issue seems to be avoided in the hub bub over TEF. There seems to be a rush to arguments are over process and details rather than fundamentals. Might this be what the government want? A fox in the hen house causing academics to panic rather than think of ways to keep the fox out?

    As a marketing person I am instinctively interested in what the value proposition of the ‘business’ (sic) is. In everyday parlance the ‘distinctive offer’. In our case surely it concerns the purpose and value of a ‘higher education’ compared to other types of education.

    Being clear and definite about this must surely contribute to how the TEF is challenged? Thus if a university is about the creation of self-directed independent learners then the discourse of ‘teaching’ as opposed to ‘educating’ needs to be unsettled. If a university’s value proposition is an experience of education that is highly distinct from secondary and further education then TEF is broadly irrelevant.

    The other assumption is that universities should be the ‘hand maidens of industry’. Really? is that what the government wants? an army of corporate clones lacking critical thinking capability.

    I realise this is an enduring chestnut however I sincerely believe that criticality, originality and innovativeness will surely diminish in a generation if students are hailed as ‘consumers’. The joy of unintended consequences! Critical and original thinking requires taking risks, effort and challenge and customer satisfaction surveys (oops NSS) are designed to elicit complaints that permit the respondent to call for things that make their life easier. No commercial business on earth would change its whole business model (sic) on the basis of exceptional instances of so called ‘lamentable teaching’. I recall being described on a module comments form as ‘confused’ because I couldn’t tell the student which of the two meanings of the term ‘marketing’ was the correct one. Marketing as a management principle or management function, “if you don’t know then what chance have i got” claimed the student. I remain puzzled how I was awarded an inspirational teaching award with such lamentable performance.

    I have been additionally intrigued in academic management meetings by the limited consideration of what we mean by value. Lots about student satisfaction and process quality, barely anything on the nature of HE value, value for the student, value for the educator etc. There is extensive contemporary theorising and empirical studies in the field of marketing management and the nature of customer (cf Service Dominant Logic Vargo and Lusch 2004, 2008, 2011) that academic managers and government seems to be broadly unaware of.

    Crucially as I’m sure many of us appreciate, the notion of value is highly ambiguous and contextual. It is not the same as satisfaction or quality (see Salomonson N., Aberg A., Allwood J. (2012) Communicative skills that support value creation: A study of B2B interactions between customers and customer service representatives. Industrial Marketing Management 41. 145–155)

    The version of value that the government seems to be running through the TEF is ‘economic value’. See Vargo and Lusch and also Ng, I.C.L. and Smith, L. (2012) ‘An Integrative Framework of Value’, Review of Marketing Research, Special Issue Toward a Better Understanding of the Role of Value in Market and Marketing 9: 207–43. for a revealing discussion of the misappropriation and selective reading of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations upon which the disciplines of conventional economics and marketing management have been built.

    I wonder if academics can draw from the language and ideas of Service Dominant Logic to present an alternative discourse on value in higher education that contests the managerialist and economic value discourse presented through TEF?

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    1. Thank you so much for starting such a fruitful dialogue and insightful comments, and I will send you an email a bit later. I do indeed wonder why the popular scientific notion of ‘proof of concept’ which we all must engage with prior to developing a funding bid is never applied to government edicts. You are right – even before the HE Bill is law, we are all acting as if this is an inevitability. Students look as if they may be the most resolute point of resistance. I’d be grateful for more references on Service Dominant Logic. The next step for me (as a linguist) is to look more closely at the discourse of the TEF in the bill. The notion of ‘value for money’ has shifted decisively from its initial referent of contact hours and is now framed within the discourse of Return on Investment – in line with one of the proposed proxy measures of the TEF.

      I certainly identify with your frustration with the pressure from students to offer definitive answers to theoretical arguments. This has increased in step with the introduction, and then increase, of tuition fees. The good students rapidly get beyond it, but the less well prepared, and the indolent, seek refuge in the idea that they are paying us for answers, or that we are inadequate if we do not offer them reassuring certainties.

      Liked by 1 person

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