Posted on Thu 24 May 2018 at 12:36 by Christopher Carter
The Government recently announced its intention to expand the contentious “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF) in Higher Education to cover subjects at individual subject level. Warwick SU recently took part in a consultation on these plans, the content of which is summarised below.
We believe that, while the objective of ensuring teaching excellence is valid (and something we have sought to attain at Warwick throughout our existence), the ways in which the TEF seeks to address the issue are inherently flawed.
Read the SU’s full response to the consultation online HERE.
Summary of SU response
- Warwick SU is deeply concerned by the adoption of a subject-level classification system and its validity across the sector, and dispute the market-logic underpinning behind this choice. We concur with NUS that it is important for any classification used to be both comprehensible to and reflective of the sector, and we strongly believe this is not. With regard to Warwick, the proposed system goes directly against our institution's multitude of teaching methods, while the way it maps out different disciplines bears no resemblance to the reality on the ground.
- By listing subjects in a “hierarchy”, we are also concerned that it might be misinterpreted as such (i.e. a hierarchy of merit attributed to different degree subjects and disciplines), and this will be used to fuel the funding disparity already present between STEM students and the Arts & Humanities. We believe that the subject-level TEF looks set to increase and reinforce inequalities between departments and disciplines, thus going against any notion of partnership, collaboration, or even university community.
- It is our belief that the processes of the TEF require academics to focus their time on its own fulfilment - time which could be much better spent supporting students and enhancing teaching quality. Its arduous application process will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the learning experiences of students, and undermines the pursuit of quality teaching and learning.
- We have significant concerns about the TEF's focus on narrow metrics and its belief that these can accurately measure teaching quality (if, indeed, they do at all). These concerns are particularly exacerbated by the use of graduate salary data as a supplementary metric. Given the evidence that gendered and racialised pay gaps exist as soon as a graduate enters employment, this could incentivise providers to change their recruitment patterns.
- We have significant concerns that both models currently being piloted are open to “gaming” on the part of universities, and could in extreme circumstances lead to them closing down subjects which are seen to be “underperforming” on TEF metrics, rather than investing in enhancement activity to benefit students.
- Allowing universities to select a small number of additional subjects for assessment leaves rankings equally open to “gaming”, since they could purposely include or exclude departments at will. This could therefore lead to a hierarchy within the university when certain subjects are reviewed more frequently, simply because they are better at gaming their metrics.
- We urge particular caution with regard to the issue of grade inflation. We feel that a perceived rise in good honours degrees being awarded is not currently backed up by tangible evidence, and is instead reflective of the fact that the UK’s recent political environment has been one in which universities have simply been encouraged to improve facilities and academic experiences for students. Given this, we would make the counter-argument that a rise in attainment nationwide does not necessarily reflect a decrease in quality or rigour.
- The Government's consistent rhetoric of “value for money” is leading to an increased focus on teaching intensity (i.e. more contact hours), when it is simply not true that students require quantity rather than quality to succeed. There should not be a measure of teaching intensity in the TEF, as it misunderstands what Higher Education seeks to achieve: individual and collective flourishing, while enabling all students to succeed according to their own (and wider society’s) needs. It is a fallacy to believe that increased teaching intensity equates to a better learning experience.
Overall, we do not believe that the current proposals have a consistent approach across all subjects. Instead of either of these models, we would recommend pursuing an alternative approach, grounded in the belief that Higher Education is a public good (and its value being not simply for the individual, but for all of society). Universities are about pushing the boundaries of knowledge; not metrics, and certainly not monetary outcomes. Until that is recognised, any TEF will fail to benefit the lives and experiences of students or staff.
More broadly, we continue to urge the Government to alter its approach to measuring the quality and governance of Higher Education - which presently contributes to a marketised, time-poor system - by moving away from its highly flawed TEF model. We hope to be partners, alongside the rest of the sector, to constructing and implementing a more suitable measure of quality for teaching and learning. Students deserve nothing less.