Tag Archives: teaching

Higher education and pandemic uncertainty

Anyone managing, working in, studying at or applying to a university is facing uncertainty during a pandemic spring that may extend into a pandemic autumn.

Wonkhe has published four informative pieces on the scale of the economic challenge for universities: by David Kernohan here  and  here , and Jim Dickinson here.  In another, Jo Grady, General Secretary of UCU, writes:

A conservative estimate on the impact of Covid-19 on our universities by London Economics identified a £2.5bn funding black hole, which would result in a £6bn shock for the economy and a loss of around 60,000 jobs – half directly in universities and the rest in the communities they serve. It is an alarming prospect.

What was unexpected was a sudden curveball from the government on student number controls. The Office for Students had already issued an injunction not to implement any admissions policies which might cause instability in the sector. This was interpreted as a warning to those universities which had been named and shamed for offering ‘conditional-unconditional’ offers in the hopes of grasping some certitude by luring applicants from the clutches of more prestigious, but selective universities. But then the government saw fit to destabilize the admissions process all on its own. The award of 5,000 places on the basis of selective metrics was a calculated decision to further rig a market which has stubbornly refused to bend to incentives over the years to deliver market supremacy to the Russell Group. David Kernohan explains:

The ability to bid for a total of 5,000 places in architecture, sciences, maths, social work, engineering (and engineering geology), and veterinary science is linked not to TEF itself – but to the data underlying two TEF metrics as absolute values. Additional places are only available if your continuation rate is over 90 per cent, and your graduate highly skilled employment or further study rate is above 75 per cent.

So we have eligibility criteria that actively encourage the growth of providers that recruit students overwhelmingly from well-to-do backgrounds. And this is a deliberate choice.

For 2020/ 2021, most universities are offering the prospect of some face to face teaching, while presenting online lectures as something they have been ‘aspiring’ to for a long time. In fact, they had seemed just as happy with Panopto lecture capture and its dual promises of surveillance and strike breaking opportunities. But never let a pandemic forestall the opportunity for some PR casuistry from Universities UK and some individual universities.

It was fantastic to see our blended approach to online and face-to-face learning being held up as an example to follow yesterday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon MP.

boasted Nottingham Trent.

However, it may have been premature to announce death of traditional campus-based learning. The president of Indiana University, Michael McRobbie, quoted in the Times Higher said “One thing we have learned definitively is that students do not want to be locked in their parents’ basement for four years doing their degree online.”  But we wait to see if the yoyo-ing ‘market’ and online delivery will carry much appeal for students who are reportedly considering deferring entry until September 2021. Many also support delaying the academic year.

If students are feeling anxious, academics are feeling the pressure of panicked demands for increased research activity from managers who at the same time are threatening redundancies.  Even as academics have struggled with home-based working, some university research mangers have demanded ‘business as usual’. This has provoked an instant reality check from contributors to academic Twitter, and this from Daphne S. Ling in a Nature article entitled ‘This pandemic is not an extended sabbatical’.

Many of us are also dealing with precarious housing, food and financial insecurity, unexpected care of children and relatives, exacerbation of chronic physical illness and mental-health struggles, family members working on the frontlines and separation from families and friends. Our struggles, anxiety, fear and grief are real. We don’t all have access to the same resources or support systems, and not everyone’s struggles look the same. Disparaging messages about productivity are especially toxic to people struggling with their mental health who have been cut off from their support networks.

The relentless insistence on productivity has been on display at the University of Strathclyde where there has been no relaxation of pressure to produce world-leading REF outputs from the University of Strathclyde. Below is a screenshot of the email recently sent to academic staff. Despite the attempt to camouflage the purpose of this message as ‘support’, the message from management is transparent and threatening. Don’t you dare let your ‘outputs’ fall or your citations diminish, even though you may have little control over either.

Strathclyde expectations

On a more promising, if contradictory, note, it is refreshing to see a new commitment to mental health in universities. This will be a priority says Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK who asks UK vice chancellors to commit to mentally healthy universities, heralding the Step Change program, which, in partnership with the Student Minds charity, promises a new whole-university approach which puts equal emphasis on staff and student mental health.

We encourage our members to adopt a whole university approach to mental health, ensuring that mental health and wellbeing are a core part of all university activities. Strong and visible leadership is essential to unlock the changes we all want to see”…“We need to see senior leaders speaking out and promoting open and supportive conversations about mental health, involving students and staff in a collective commitment to improve outcomes for all.

Readers of this blog may be familiar with my account of trying to have one of those conversations with students about staff mental health. I imagine there will remain some similar limits to the scope of those conversations.

In my subsequent investigations (here and here) of the mental health climate for staff in universities, I have made quite a few recommendations on how this might be ameliorated in terms of structural changes and realistic expectations of staff. One recommendation which now seems doomed is any commitment to sustainable careers for new PhDs, post-doctoral researchers and newly appointed lecturers. In the US and England – market-dominated higher education systems – the price is being paid by early career and precarious academics who now face hiring freezes which will blunt their ability to get a career launched. Their prospects may never recover. If they were graduating in most EU countries, their research could continue.

The most significant issue that has been brought into focus by the pandemic is that a higher education system controlled by the market is not as robust as market fundamentalists like to insist. While there are no reported redundancies in Germany, and Dutch academics have been awarded a pay rise, we in England are obliged to gamble the future of universities on tuition fee income and a constant flow of students from outside the EU. We are about to witness the consequence of a depletion of both sources of income. The claim has frequently been made that higher education in the UK has been spared the consequences of austerity. That claim will not be repeated as we see the failure of the strategy of marketisation to counter the vulnerabilities revealed by an unforeseen crisis. Today The Times pronounces, “The likely bankruptcy of some institutions would be neither surprising nor particularly regretful.”   There seems to be a real chance that England will see its universities decimated, while those of other major economies will strengthen. Let’s hope those whose educational choices are so casually dismissed by The Times will fight for the university places that will expand their opportunities and they have qualified for.





Your First is my Artefactual Algorithm

There was an interesting piece by Mike Ratcliffe on Wonkhe last week: Why my university is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. It deserves further discussion. 

Mike was writing about Nottingham Trent University’s response to government and media concerns about the rising percentage of first class degrees being awarded across the higher education sector. He cites figures of 16% in 2011 rising to 29% in 2018.

I have blogged before about the moral panic over the increasing numbers of firsts. However, in a context where some employers overlook graduates without ‘good’ degrees, and universities are rewarded in the TEF for the high salaries earned by graduates, it is inevitable that this would have provided an incentive for universities to look for ways to uplift marks.  

As Mike points out “the HE sector runs a criterion-based assessment system; firsts are not rationed according to a predetermined allocation, they are awarded for meeting the criteria…The grading ensures marks are based entirely on comparing the qualities of student work with associated written descriptors of assessment criteria.” And that is the whole point of the GBA system; it defines for students exactly what standards of work and academic practices they need to master to attain a specific grade. The learning outcomes are very clearly laid out, and the different levels of attainment exemplified with sample responses to assignments. This is good pedagogy. There should be no mystery about how to attain high marks, and students should benefit from excellent teaching and the kind of feedback that enables them to improve their work as they progress through their studies.

Grade-based assessment was introduced at Nottingham Trent around the time of the introduction of 9K tuition fees and there is even an explanatory video.  If you extend the usable range of marks from 70 to 100 in an aggregate system, then obviously this will result in a larger number of higher awards being made. This was not an artefact; it was intentional, because, as was explained to staff at the time, they should be “leading students to a high end of level standard”. It was also a justified response to that perpetual urging from externals to use the top range of marks to distinguish excellent work from the good and very good. And for the reasons I have outlined above, it was defensible on pedagogical grounds.

Nottingham Trent University now says that it is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. I wonder how the students feel about this. If universities are supposed to publish a Degree Classification Statement of Intent   which promises to “review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated” what, then, if those algorithms change between a student’s first and final years? Last year’s students appear to have been the subjects of a re-jigged algorithm which, instead of awarding a first to students who have at least half of their credits in the first class category, they must now have the majority. This will not have affected those students whose aggregate score is over 70%, but may have affected some of those who exhibited ‘exit velocity’ with an improved performance in their final year. This approach has reduced the number of firsts by 7.1%. But what about that injunction to reward ‘a high end of level standard’?  

If you say you’re running a criterion-led system, and then try and curtail the resulting high scores with a revised algorithm, you risk this being seen as grade-based gerrymandering. And will students be reassured to learn that lecturers who have taught them will no longer be invited to speak up in support of a higher award if their aggregate marks happen to fall on the borderline? Mike writes that “the University has also removed the power of examination boards to make discretionary classification decisions for students on the classification borderline.” There hardly seems to be any point in having an exam board if the algorithm is accorded supremacy while personalized academic judgement is evacuated.

It is a shame that universities cannot summon the confidence to assert that improving teaching has been a priority and that, as a result, student achievement has been enhanced. It seems absurd to take pride in claiming the reverse. If only higher education was driven by principles of pedagogical soundness, not by political soundbites, it might be easier to win the confidence of students, staff and government.

The Office for Students: Ten reasons why it is not for students at all

The Office for Students (OfS) is the new regulatory body for universities and higher education providers in the UK.  To date it has had a short and rather volatile history. Below is a collection of the main issues which students and academics should be aware of.

  1. The OfS will ensure that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) becomes even more prominent for universities who are to be assessed on their ‘outcomes’. However, the TEF is relatively untested, and its critics charge that it will not diagnose poor teaching any more than it will uncover excellent teaching. It is not designed for these tasks since no teaching is actually observed. Teaching quality is inferred from proxy measures which have a very distant and disputed relationship with teaching. See this blog from Dorothy Bishop, and this previous one from me.
  2. The TEF will not incentivise universities to prioritise teaching. Unlike the REF (Research Excellence Framework) which has, arguably, recognised and rewarded excellence in research wherever it is found (notwithstanding Derek Sayer’s well-founded objections), a very different set of circumstances obtain for the TEF. Let’s take an example. Several universities have seen fit to cut courses in Modern Languages in response to falling student demand. Languages other than English and Irish Gaelic will soon no longer be taught in Northern Ireland, so how would an undisputed finding of excellent teaching affect that decision? Will universities channel funding to support excellent teaching wherever it is found? I predict they will not, and that is because funding follows the student. It is a formula designed to disrupt the traditional right of universities to make autonomous decisions about course provision based on the current state of knowledge and discovery. The fact is, when university curricular decisions are outsourced to the caprice of 18 year olds, there is little point in trying to pretend any other factor counts. If you have decided to expand a course because it attracts funding and international students, then no amount of poor National Student Survey scores will not dislodge that conclusion.
  3. Ergo, poor teaching will be condoned and concealed by universities in the flawed and distorted market of UK higher education. The TEF is still useful to universities as it offers a justification for getting rid of unconventional academics who are disliked by managers.
  4. The Office for Students seems to fixate on issues which don’t really register as important for students. Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, answered questions from The Joint Committee on Human Rights – a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament on 17th January 2018. Here he exposes the mythology of a crisis of freedom of speech in universities which is not top of students’ priorities.Amatey Doku
  5. The Office for Students has no representative from the National Union of Students on the board. This is in spite of promises from Theresa May that the NUS would work in consultation with the new regulatory body. The sole student representative, Ruth Carlson, is relatively unknown. The circumstances of her appointment are not clear, but the new minister for higher education, Sam Gyimah, revealed that she was chosen from outside of the pool of three candidates considered appointable by the interview committee. We can only speculate what advantages Ms Carlson’s appointment might confer on the board of the OfS, but expertise in student representation does not appear to be among them. She is studying civil engineering, however, and this might plug a gap on the board (see 6).
  6. Not a single other scientist or engineer has been selected for the board.
  7. The Office for Students’ mission is defined in Chapter 2 para 37 of Success as a Knowledge Economy, the government White Paper published in May 2016.

“The OfS will be explicitly pro-competition and pro-student choice, and will make sure that a high quality higher education experience is available for students from all backgrounds. For the first time, we will put the interests of the student at the heart of our regulatory landscape. By enabling better student outcomes, we will also protect the interests of taxpayers and the economy”.

But the suspicion at this point is that the government’s understanding of competition and choice is restricted to the introduction of new private providers into the system. The fear is that they will choose to provide cheap-to-teach courses, like law and business, and this will further restrict the choices available to students. This concern is grounded in the fact that among the members of the board are Carl Lygo, former VC of BPP University, part of the Apollo Group which includes the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA. The rest of the appointees can be seen here  and we note that private sector and business professionals predominate over practitioners in higher education.

8. There are real doubts about how the quality of higher education courses will be protected by the new regulator. The OfS will oversee the award of university title to new HE providers – a privilege currently only bestowed by the Privy Council. The OfS has already shown signs that it may tolerate a less rigorous pathway to university status than we see with current arrangements. Alarm bells rang for many academics when the UA92 Manchester United Academy was announced. The new regulatory arrangements allow for degree awarding powers to be issued with no demand for a track record of quality teaching and assessment under the supervision of an established university.  OfS will also be able to revoke the title of university for those institutions it deems to be failing. The current quality assurance system works with universities if they are seen to be in need of improvement, but students now might start studying at a university, only to find their institution downgraded or fined into bankruptcy.

9. The OfS has already demonstrated poor judgement in its attempt to appoint Toby Young to the board. Given the structures outlined in the White Paper, this appointment must have been overseen by ministers (namely Jo Johnson), and Young would have been interviewed by Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of OfS. The appointment of student representative, Ruth Carlson (see point 5 above) seems similarly unorthodox. This action has alienated most parts of the sector, as we can only assume it was meant to. We need an independent regulator which can work with universities, not antagonise them for the sake of it.

10. Jo Johnson, the previous minister for higher education, has suggested that it will be within the remit of OfS to issue financial penalties to universities which award ‘too many’ firsts and 2.1 degrees. Firstly, as I argue (in a forthcoming piece), there is no firm basis for charging universities with grade inflation. Secondly, there is no suggestion at the moment what might constitute ‘too many’. If the OfS does interfere with universities’ cherished independence and academic judgement in this manner, it is unlikely to make many friends among students it counts as its central constituency.

The unease which has greeted the launch of the OfS has prompted Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, the vice chancellors’ representative body, to write of the recent consultation document from the OfS, “The tone of the document is, in places, confrontational and appears preoccupied by short-term political concerns rather than the larger long-term task of creating a credible, independent regulator”.

The OfS has shown itself to be willing to pursue moral panics that vice chancellors feel originate with a government piqued by perceived opposition to its agenda (especially Brexit).  Many of the rest of us resent the ideologically motivated campaign in both government and media circles which is unsympathetic to dearly held academic values such as education for the public good and worry that the OfS is merely another vehicle by which to instigate this. I for one share Alistair Hudson’s hope that, “In the months ahead, it will be necessary for the OfS to establish itself as a mature, fair and accountable regulator that uses its powers to support students through proportionate regulation and judgement.” Sadly, the shortcomings exposed by its initial actions have meant that OfS has probably exhausted any goodwill it might otherwise have been able to claim.