Tag Archives: Warwick

Ten Myths and a Truth from the TEF: Reading the White Paper

Although the Higher Education and Research Bill is still going through parliamentary scrutiny, the Teaching Excellence Framework is about to be implemented and yet we do not know for certain what its effects will be, or even which institutions will enter into it. On the 2nd of December 2016, the same day as students at Warwick University went into occupation against the TEF , the chair of the TEF, Professor Chris Husbands,  published a blog piece entitled Busting five common myths about the TEF. A welcome addition to the critique, I thought, but I felt as though we were reading different documents.  I have been working on Chapter 2 of the White Paper (TEF) and so I checked some of Jo Johnson’s claims against evidence from some of the other publications I have been reading recently. Concealed within the pages of Jo Johnson’s White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016,  are quite a few contested propositions and ten more myths which Chris Husbands has overlooked.

We hear much of how political discourse operates in a post-truth culture, but one of the key strategies of persuasion is via presupposition – an statement whose truth is assumed without substantiation. Another trick is to make syntactic linkages between concepts which then acquire the appearance of logical relationship. We find both of these demonstrated in the White Paper.

Below I outline myths (quotations and presuppositions from the White Paper) and responses based on evidence and reason.

Myth 1: There is a problem with ‘lamentable’ teaching quality in universities.

Response: There is no evidence presented to sustain the claim. Use of an inflammatory adjective installs the presupposition.

Myth 2: Students cannot make informed choices….These decisions are significant factors in determining a student’s future life and career success, so it is crucial that they represent sound investments. We need to make sure that students have access to the best possible information to make choices about what they study, and the benefits that they can expect to gain from those choices.

Response: Students have a lot of choice of courses, and they make up their own minds by consulting websites, alternative prospectuses, going to open days. There is even metricised data from Unistats  (comparison site which evaluates NSS scores, employment data and graduate salaries – exactly the innovation Jo Johnson thinks the TEF will deliver) and from league tables.

Nouns like ‘investment’ can also operate as presuppositions as the concept is assumed to be inevitable and universal.  ‘Investment’ is presented in crudely financialised terms as ‘return on investment’ or ROI, which presupposes that students are primarily concerned about future earnings. No evidence is presented to substantiate this, even in the face of students continuing to apply for courses where relatively low salaries are likely upon graduation e.g. nursing, creative arts, education, agriculture. We note that ‘investment’ is a polysemic (multi-meaning) term used to reference the expending of economic capital, and emotional/ intellectual capital by the individual.

Myth 3: Robust, comparable information about the quality of teaching – and the components that contribute to it – is not currently available… That is why this Government will introduce the TEF and for the first time bring sector-wide rigour to the assessment of teaching excellence.

Response: A repetition of the presupposition that students do not already have access to this information. As stated above, it clearly is available. If it is not, why have we been pouring money into QAA, institutional reviews,  Hefce, etc. for all these years, if it has not had the effect of ensuring the quality and reputation of the sector? This architecture of quality assurance, though imperfect, has ensured that the UK is one of the most highly regulated and inspected sectors in the world.

Myth 4: The consumer organisation Which? has found that three in ten students think that the academic experience of higher education is poor value, and the issues raised by students in that research included the amount, and quality, of teaching they received, and the extent to which they are academically challenged.

Response: It is good to see a rare appeal to evidence, but perhaps the wrong conclusions are being drawn by the Which? study. This study by Steven Jones, Steven Courtney and Ruth McGinity proposes another interpretation: “Large fee increases mean that university is bound to be seen as exploitatively expensive by students. This does not mean they are dissatisfied with their courses or teaching quality”. In fact, the NSS scores nationally indicate that students are satisfied with their university experience. Can Jo Johnson make NSS a key metric, and then discount it, all in the same policy document?

Myth 5: Clear priorities of students while at university included: “having more hours of teaching”, “reducing the size of teaching groups” and “better training for lecturers”, but there is little information for prospective students on this in advance.

Response: As this study finds, effective student learning does not always emerge from ‘more contact hours’; in fact independent study is more valuable.   Learning may be the first casualty of a popularity-led evaluation like the NSS/ TEF.

Myth 6: Employers report a growing mismatch between the skills they need and the skills that graduates offer.

Response: A study reported in the Times Higher in 2015 shows that universities are doing a good job in developing the kind of skills which employers find useful and “UK employers are still among the most satisfied with their nation’s higher education system (giving it 7.3 out of 10, compared with a global average of 6.8).”

Myth 7: We need to ensure that our higher education system continues to provide the best possible outcomes. These come from informed choice and competition.

Response: This is a logical non-sequitur, but allows a lazy conflation of several unrelated concepts and assumes causality between them. The White Paper assumes that outcomes = return on investment = graduate salaries, and that these will be consequent upon informed choice and competition. Quality of courses, and choice for students, is more likely to emerge from imaginative cooperation between institutions. This would be an innovation worth pursuing.

This study by David Morris of Wonkhe analyses the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome (LEO) data. There are a number of departures from the outcomes-require-competition myth. Prior attainment, i.e. A Level performance, makes a huge difference to graduate earnings, regardless of subject studied.  This raises a question about ‘learning gain’ – also a concern of the White Paper. I’m sure this will present itself as another cudgel to beat less-favoured universities with. However, Morris’ study also identifies a gender gap and a race gap for earnings, which is far less consonant with a learning gain/ value-added analysis.

Myth 8: By removing student number controls and making it easier for new providers to enter, we will create the conditions that will allow choice and competition to flourish. But what is also needed is the information to allow students to determine where the best teaching can be found.

Response: The answer to quality enhancement, we are expected to believe, is the entry of new providers in order to create ‘competition’. Except the new providers will not be expected to fulfil all the expectations that publically-funded universities are expected to address. As this article makes clear, as new private providers have emerged in strength in South America, especially Argentina and Chile, they have not been engaged in research. This, argues the author – Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, restricts the number of qualified PhDs who are able to take the higher education system forward.

Myth 9: The Government believes that excellent teaching can occur in many different forms, in a wide variety of institutions, and it is not the intention of the TEF to constrain or prescribe the form that excellence must take. What we expect though, is that excellent teaching, whatever its form, delivers excellent outcomes.

Response: The TEF will have criteria, and metrics, so how can the White Paper say that the form of excellence will not be prescribed or constrained. In fact, that is exactly what will happen as institutions align their priorities precisely to those criteria – which as the statement makes clear, are in any case based on the proxy ‘outcomes’ of NSS scores, retention and most importantly graduate salaries which are high enough to pay back all the money the government has lost in its ill-advised restructuring of HE finance towards what are, in effect, individual student vouchers.

Myth 10: Perhaps the biggest myth of all – as Jones, Courtney and McGinity point out, is Johnson’s claim that the TEF will strengthen the position of students.  It will not – and indeed, the NUS has voted to disengage from TEF. Evidence shows that co-opting students as consumers is damaging to educational experience.

A truth – a veritable truth: There is of course more to university than financial gain, but the idea that excellent teaching occurs in a vacuum, independent of its impact on students’ future life chances, is not one we can or should accept.

Response:  There is a nice hat tip to other justifications of HE, but immediately we see the counter-narrative remains in place with co-reference of outcomes with financial gain, disguised as ‘life chances’. The presupposition is that the most significant outcome of higher education is employment, but as this study shows, economists have often found that education has benefits for society beyond those of the individual – for example in terms of volunteering, social trust, better citizenship (lower crime).


Whatever does ail the higher education sector in the UK, the TEF spreadsheet will not fix it. Much more likely is that the government will recruit ‘consumer choice’ as a disciplinary tool, overlooking the needs of scholarship, local economies or student interests, and possibly serving as licence for university closure. By allowing this false reasoning to go unopposed, we risk losing quality, opportunity and reputation within the sector. Here is a link to the Convention for Higher Education website which has some key resources for opposing the TEF and the Higher Education and Research Bill. Organise, and support students in their refusal to co-operate with the TEF and NSS as long as it threatens to raise their fees, waste millions of pounds of their ‘investment’, threaten the reputation of their courses and distort the priorities of universities away from good teaching and research.


Not Doing a Thomas Cook

The phrase “doing a Ratner” has its origin in the famous address given by Gerald Ratner, at the time, Chief Executive of the Ratners Group of jewellers, to the Institute of Directors, when he said this about his company’s product: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, ‘because it’s total crap'”.

Since that incident, companies have sharpened their sensitivities to reputational damage, either deliberate or inadvertent. This concern has only deepened with the growth of social media. In fact, absolutely the quickest way to get a reply from any customer service outlet is to call them out on Twitter.

This week, a sad and complex case came to a close. Thomas Cook travel agents had spent nine years avoiding taking responsibility for what a recent inquest has found to be a breach of their duty of care to a family whose children lost their lives due to a badly-maintained heating appliance in a holiday hotel in Crete in 2006. Finally, in May 2015, the chief executive took responsibility, but only after a large insurance payout to the firm had attracted further negative coverage in the media.

By contrast, after a recent Amtrak train derailment in the US (Tuesday 12th May) on the line from Philadelphia to New York in which eight people were killed, the president and CEO, Joe Boardman, sent all passengers (including me) an email on Saturday 16th May which included this:

“With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event”.

If my confidence in Amtrak had ever wavered, this response restored it immediately. This is a company which recognizes failure, apologizes and intends to address the problems. Everything is acknowledged publicly. Bereaved families were not having their grief aggravated by being treated to secrecy and silence.

These are both great tragedies for all affected by them, and I do not wish to diminish them by making inappropriate comparisons.  However, universities could learn something from this. In the UK and the US, university managers increasingly view their institutions in terms of business and markets. No slur is allowed to attach itself to the university’s name. Social media policies, and behaviour codes on ‘civility’ have emerged, which in some cases threaten academic freedom and academic careers.

Civility initiatives have been defended by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of Warwick University, in 2012 in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, so his reaction to apparent insubordination from Professor Thomas Docherty in 2014 was not surprising. Docherty’s offense was reported to be nothing more than sighing and making ironic comments in meetings. What the academic community suspected, was that his views on managerialism and audit culture in universities had attracted the rage of the university’s senior management. Professor Docherty spent an uncomfortable nine months suspended from his position, unable to use campus facilities or correspond with students and colleagues. All charges were later dismissed, and Professor Docherty returned to work. Like footballers mobbing a referee after a controversial decision, Warwick management’s strategy was not intended to change a result, but to exact more cautious behaviour from him and others in future. Beware the next time you appear to be critical of your university, or even the state of higher education, especially if you cannot draw on prominent academic standing, and support from the Times Higher, among many others. But reputational damage has been done to the Warwick ‘brand’; many in the academic community now question their commitment to academic freedom, and freedom of speech.

This mistrust was heightened when, in July 2014,  a lawyer in the firm acting for the university, SGH Martineau, posted a blog piece which seemed to validate macho management techniques ‘pour encourager les autres’.  Titled ‘getting your teeth into high performer misconduct’, it was offensive for many reasons, not least because it made an explicit analogy between the conduct of star footballer Luis Suarez, who had recently bitten an opponent during a game, and academics who ‘damage their employer’s brand’ by their outspoken opinions. It is worth quoting from the piece in full:

“Universities and colleges may, equally, encounter high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand. This could be through outspoken opinions (where these fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom or freedom of speech more widely) or general insubordination, e.g. a failure to comply with the reasonable requests of an employer, or other behaviour such as bullying or harassment of colleagues. Irrespective of how potentially valuable these employees may be to their institutions, the reality is that, in consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour, institutions may be setting dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated. From a risk perspective, it is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before”. [http://blog.sghmartineau.com/archive/2014/07/03/getting-your-teeth-stuck-into-high-performer-misconduct.aspx]

I may be mistaken, but I recall that the piece was edited, and the clause in brackets added, after a Twitter flame fest broke out between an outraged academic community, and SGH Martineau. The amendments just cemented the impression that academic freedom was merely an inconvenient afterthought.

Another current controversy drawing press attention is the climate of sexual harassment on many UK and US university campuses. In the US, President Obama and Vice President Biden have made personal commitments to ending the rape culture on campus. Even in the face of presidential support, it is still not uncommon for universities to try and block attempts to research the issue, as recently happened at the University of Oregon.

Here in Britain, ‘laddism’ is seen as part of a campus culture which emerges in a climate of hyper-masculinity, sports teams and alcohol use (Phipps and Young 2015). It is almost always pack behaviour and characterised by sexism, misogyny and homophobia. There is no doubt that it forms a hostile environment for women students. A 2010 report funded by the National Union of Students, Hidden Marks, found that one in seven women had experienced sexual assault, and 68% had been verbally harassed. The National Union of Students conducted another survey in 2015 which found one in three students had been sexually assaulted or abused while at university

This issue has made the news consistently in the intervening five years, however, a report which featured on the front page of The Guardian on 25th May 2015 revealed that fewer than half of the Russell Group universities systematically record rapes, sexual assaults or sexual harassment.

Despite this accumulation of evidence, Dr Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group, is quoted in the article as saying: “Russell Group universities take the issue of any kind of harassment, abuse or violence against women extremely seriously indeed. Our institutions have robust policies and procedures in place to deal with these matters, because ensuring student safety and wellbeing is extremely important to us.” [http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/24/top-universities-fail-record-sexual-violence-against-students-russell-group]

It might be more accurate to say that universities have robust procedures to make sure that instances of sexual assault and harassment are kept well buried. Even bystander intervention campaigns can make senior managers nervous in case their university is seen as a ‘rape campus.’ It is ironic, given the emphasis we are all supposed to place on the much-vaunted ‘student experience,’ that this is subordinated to reputational concerns whenever there is a conflict.

Universities are on morally shaky ground in persisting with a stance of denial and negligence, but increasingly they are legally vulnerable as well. In the US, some women students are filing discrimination suits under Title IX legislation (the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at colleges that receive US federal funds) claiming that universities do not provide them with a safe learning environment. Students at Xavier University of Ohio and  Harvard University Law School are the most recent to have successfully pursued claims to force universities to institute training and response to sexual assault.

In my own work as a lecturer in linguistics, I read projects and dissertations every year that draw on recordings of actual conversations among students. I am only too aware of male students’ discourses of rape and sexism, as well as racism. This year, I have learned a lot from being part of a ‘respect and consent’ group at my university as we move to create culture change and a better environment for all students, bolstered by an explicit code of behaviour and campaign of education. All UK universities would do well to take the issue seriously and follow the example of those universities who take women’s safety seriously.

As a general point, I hope university managers are learning something about brand management that they won’t find in business school leadership courses. Universities are charged with defending academic freedom, freedom to challenge authority, and the responsibility to provide a safe environment. The cases I have outlined have shown that an over-concern with reputation is, paradoxically, more than likely to lead to damaging your reputation. The lesson is – do an Amtrak, not a Thomas Cook.


McVeigh, Karen. 2015 Top universities fail to record sexual violence against women. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/24/top-universities-fail-record-sexual-violence-against-students-russell-group Accessed May 24th 2015.

NUS report: That’s what she said: women students’ experience of ‘lad culture’ in higher education. 2015. http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/Campaigns/That%27s%20what%20she%20said%20full%20report%20Final%20web.pdf

Phipps, Alison and Young Isabel. 2015. Lad culture in higher education: agency in the sexualisation debates. Sexualities. ISSN 1363-4607