HE Green Paper: reforms will benefit the established elite

Successful reform of higher education to reward good teaching 'may be an impossibility', says Paul Blackmore

December 17, 2015
Houses of Parliament at night

The government’s higher education Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential, seeks to tackle a long-term problem – that teaching does not have as much significance as research in UK universities – and suggests this is because there is no mechanism in place to reward teaching.

Change is proposed by introducing the teaching excellence framework (TEF), so that institutions who teach better will be paid more for doing so. Changing attitudes towards teaching will be particularly challenging, but the scale of the task is perhaps even greater and more complex than at first appears.

It is, of course, not yet clear whether the mechanisms chosen in the Green Paper will be effective, but they will have varying effects on institutions’ motivations and priorities. To estimate these effects requires an appreciation of the ways in which prestige and reputation work at all levels in higher education – from the system as a whole through to individual members of staff and students. Prestige and reputation are words in wide use, carrying a variety of possible meanings, but distinguishing them from each other means that they can be used to help think about achieving change in universities.

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Prestige is hard to measure; it usually takes a long time to build it or lose it and not everyone can have it (it is inherently elitist). Reputation, on the other hand, is more directly linked to evidence. It can be gained and lost quickly, and provided certain standards are met, anyone can have a good reputation.

Some have argued that universities tend to be either mainly prestige-seeking or mainly reputation-seeking. Whilst this is a broad-brush claim, it is useful to explore how the terms can help illuminate the current teaching excellence debate. Central to this is the question of what is measured as an indicator of quality.

Assessment of teaching quality depends on the use of valid and reliable metrics, and these are reputational rather than prestige indicators, almost by definition, because they are measurements. The Green Paper envisages that qualitative judgements will also be made to support statistical evidence. What is not clear is whether this will produce a level playing field, removing the influence of prestige and ensuring the triumph of statistically backed reputation. It may be an impossibility.

Some of the metrics currently available are not necessarily measures of teaching quality, but tend to favour more prestigious institutions. For example, the kind of job a graduate obtains may be influenced by a “signalling effect” provided by the perceived standing of the institution awarding them their degree. These types of statistics have some relevance, but clearly they don’t provide the complete picture.

There is also a danger that effort is expended on inventing and implementing measures that do not make any difference to the choices that many students make.

It is assumed that students will make a rational choice when presented with data about teaching quality. But we know that many students do not behave in this way. In an institution offering prestige benefit, students know the advantages offered and the signalling benefit they obtain is not wholly related to the quality of teaching. A holistic judgement is made about the “right kind” of university from which to obtain a degree. However, in contrast, in lower socio-economic groupings where local institutions have no prestige to confer, students may well pay greater attention to statistics about teaching quality.

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The current proposals have an apparent illogicality at their heart: that those institutions that are already excellent should be allowed to charge more. It is not clear why more money is needed when excellence is already being achieved within current funding levels. It would seem more logical to invest additional funds in institutions that need to improve.

It seems possible we will move to a system where the richest institutions, scoring well against largely prestige measures, will be given more. How will that funding be used? The US experience, in a more competitive and differentiated system, is that money is often spent on prestige items, such as football teams and iconic buildings. Another likely beneficiary is research, already subsidised by teaching income, with the rationale that good research generates prestige for the institution, thus increasing the value of a student’s degree. These prestige-driven outcomes reinforce trends that can already be seen in current practice.

Significantly, the Green Paper highlights the importance of training, reward and recognition mechanisms, and career progression”. This is an area where attitudes can be influenced, and where more can be done to support teaching.

Most academic promotion continues to be on the basis of research excellence, even in those institutions that are overwhelmingly teaching-focused, because the prestige of research continues to trump teaching. It is now common for institutions to set up parallel career tracks for excellent teachers outside the main academic track but this may not work as well as a single structure for all. Parity of esteem has to start from a belief that research and teaching are both equally valuable – and this then genuinely has to inform probation and promotion processes.

This tension between research and teaching continues to be an issue and making teaching relatively more important does not diminish the importance of research in some academics’ eyes. It simply means there will be two voices shouting instead of one. However, the voices are likely to be different in their motivational effects. The prestige economy of research is immensely strong, buttressed for many years by research assessment. Centred in disciplines and experienced locally in the member of faculty’s department, research achievement will probably continue to feel very different from teaching achievement, which will be perceived to be a central government and institutional concern.

Read more: Is TEF the right tool for the job?

This is not to ignore the excellent teaching that has always happened and will continue to do so, because those who teach often love their work and feel committed to their students. However, such grass-roots activity does not usually generate prestige. At a faculty level, it is likely that a large research grant will speak much more loudly than excellent teaching in terms of academic prestige, a currency that is not money, although it often has an indirect relationship.

Surely a smarter way of working has to be to reward those who successfully link research and teaching, by making students’ learning a more research-like activity, by emphasising the value of pedagogic research, and by ensuring that those who both research and teach are the dominant role model for an academic career. As the Green Paper makes some reference to, this has to be tackled at a discipline level.

Any reform of universities is more likely to be successful if it is based on an understanding of how universities work. Central to this is the question of individual and group motivation.

If this can be managed well, some of the inherent tensions in academic life can be lessened, for the good of all. If this is not done, squeezed and impoverished teaching-led institutions will increasingly view with envy their research-driven counterparts, made wealthier by the working of prestige, but perhaps remaining relatively unconcerned about the quality of their teaching.

Paul Blackmore is professor of higher education in the International Centre for University Policy Research at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. He is also author of Prestige in Academic Life: Excellence and Exclusion, recently published by Routledge.

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