The HE White Paper could bring ‘Ofsted tyranny’ to universities

Success as a Knowledge Economy is the culmination of several unwelcome trends in higher education, writes Joanna Williams 

May 16, 2016
Rating performance
Source: iStock

Today’s publication of the long awaited Higher Education White Paper marks, for me, the final stages of the transformation of universities into second-rate schools.

Success as a Knowledge Economy imports the worst elements of the government’s micro-management of schools, such as Ofsted inspections and the use of exam results to hold institutions and individual teachers to account, into higher education. However, unlike schools, universities will be expected to combine excessive state interference with a market-driven philistinism that privileges economic returns to education above all else.

Historically, the primary purpose of universities has been the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. Success as a Knowledge Economy aims to do many things, but reinforcing the centrality of knowledge to higher education is clearly not one of them.

Higher education White Paper: key points at a glance

Not counting the title of the document, the word “knowledge” is used only eight times in the 84 pages of the White Paper. It is used three times in phrases such as, “the knowledge economy” or “an economy driven by knowledge”, and five times in the phrase “knowledge exchange” – a technical term referring to the dissemination of research to groups primarily outside academia.

Whereas the authors of previous government higher education policy documents were obliged at least to pay lip-service to knowledge for its own sake, Jo Johnson and his team seem to feel no need to make even a rhetorical nod in this direction. It is ironic that the more there is talk of a knowledge economy, the less importance is placed upon knowledge itself.

The separation of universities from the pursuit and transmission of knowledge makes talk of teaching excellence entirely vacuous. When little importance is paid to content, to what it is that lecturers are to teach “excellently”, emphasis is instead placed on performance. Teaching is reduced to style over substance. The use of student satisfaction as one of the “core metrics” to measure the quality of teaching and the linking of this to institutional revenue streams – tuition fees paid by students – exacerbates this trend further.

Read more: Higher education White Paper is just the beginning

What results is a race to the bottom with ever fewer intellectual demands being made of students.

Ironically, Success as a Knowledge Economy does recognise that the quality of higher education cannot be measured by satisfaction alone. However, instead of scrapping the National Student Survey and abolishing the use of this metric, it proposes additional means of evaluating teaching. That TEF judgements will be made against agreed criteria by an expert peer review panel including employers and students speaks to the adoption of Ofsted-style school inspections in universities.

In schools, the tyranny of Ofsted has led to particular “approved” teaching methods becoming ubiquitous and the imposition of institutional diktats against “teacher talk”. Child-centred teaching must be demonstrated through frenetic activity rather than intellectual engagement. In the process, teachers lose the autonomy to decide for themselves how to teach on the basis of the unique relationship between their pupils and the subject to be taught.

The discipline-specific nature of university teaching and the relationship of the individual academic to the knowledge that they teach makes higher education far less suited to an inspection framework, even one from inside the institution or discipline.

The authors of Success as a Knowledge Economy can envisage only an economic purpose for higher education. The sector is to drive forward the national economy at the same time as increasing individual social mobility. Students can cash in the assorted generic employability skills they picked up along the way to collecting their degree certificates when they enter the labour market. Universities will, in turn, be judged on how successful they are at getting students into post-graduation employment.

The more students earn then the higher fees universities will be able to charge. By this logic, it does not matter if teaching becomes homogeneous. Such perverse incentives mean getting students to write a curriculum vitae, answer interview questions and give a good group work presentation are likely to become as important as reading books.

More on the White Paper: TEF link to fees stays, but will be phased in

There is little new in today’s White Paper. Instead it represents, only perhaps in cruder form, a culmination of trends that have been put in place over many years. The instrumental notion that universities should serve an economic purpose has been around for decades. The linking of higher education to individual earnings and social mobility helped to justify the introduction of tuition fees. The focus on satisfaction and the transformation of students into consumers pre-dates the current government.

Many academics will no doubt look at Success as a Knowledge Economy and despair. But until a convincing case can be made for knowledge to be at the heart of higher education there will always remain a vacuum to be filled by external directives.

If students are to learn, if they are to engage with complex intellectual debates, master them and make them their own, we need to recognise that learning can neither be bought nor done by proxy. There needs to be less focus on teaching excellence and more discussion on what it is that students need to know. It is not good enough for the government to phase in the link between fees and teaching quality, it needs to abandon these plans altogether.

Joanna Williams is the author of Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t Be Bought and Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Confronting the Fear of Knowledge.

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Reader's comments (1)

This feels to me more like the Audit Commission (RIP) than Ofsted, in its "noughties" CPA incarnation. This is not a good thing.

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