Despite the flurry of debate surrounding the release of the government’s latest higher education missive, there are few surprises in the policy proposals.
Fulfilling our Potential – Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice employs familiar rhetoric: the higher education landscape, with “students at its heart”, is to be focused upon the mantra of productivity, transparency and accountability.
Further attempts to bring a university marketplace into existence are to be driven by the provision of yet more information for fee-paying students to compare and contrast prior to purchase. The reward for those universities that give students what they want will be the right to charge higher fees.
Jo Johnson, minister of state for universities and science, is correct to point out that in many universities teaching is “regarded as a poor cousin to academic research”. The institutional funding and prestige to be gained from a successful performance in the research excellence framework ensures that many academics feel under greater pressure to turn out grant applications and narrowly focused journal articles than to talk to students.
But the problems with teaching in higher education go deeper than this. A culture of low expectations, a high ratio of students to academics and a huge emphasis on satisfaction all result in very few demands being put on students to engage with scholarship in any serious manner. Grade inflation means that despite little intellectual struggle, students will still be rewarded with a degree certificate.
The proposals set out in Fulfilling our Potential will only exacerbate this situation. They reveal the ignorance of the nature of scholarship, and teaching in particular, that characterises all levels of higher education policy.
Unfortunately for the bureaucrats who drive so much of what happens in universities, learning is not a tangible commodity that can be weighed and measured. There is no way to determine in advance what students might gain from engaging with a topic; their academic ability, prior knowledge, interest and motivation cannot be regulated and quantified. How much students learn will be primarily as a result of their own efforts, and for this reason evaluating whether or not higher education represents “value for money” is a pretty meaningless task.
The government’s proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF) risks regulating higher education out of existence in all but name. The expectation that teaching should be transparent and accountable will lead to counting hours, credits, assessments and “learning outcomes”. None of these correlates with good quality teaching.
The onus on academics to undergo formal teacher training will produce conformity throughout the sector as “best practice” becomes translated as “tips and tricks” to be performed and monitored. The idiosyncratic and charismatic subject expert risks being turned into a PowerPoint reader with a pre-prepared script. The formulae of presenting students with outcomes, getting them to do group-work exercises to show engagement, followed by a whole class plenary to ascertain that learning targets have been met, is reminiscent of school teaching at its worst.
More detrimental perhaps than any of this is the renewed emphasis on student satisfaction. Real learning requires exposing students to their own ignorance, it involves intellectual struggle, it demands that the familiar be made strange and that every tightly held assumption be questioned. Good quality teaching in higher education should be anything but satisfactory. Measuring and publishing rates of satisfaction only exacerbates an intellectual race to the bottom.
Quality teaching in higher education is driven by scholarship. This requires academics who are themselves interested in and engaged with their subject and have a desire to pursue and pass on a body of knowledge to a new generation. The government’s latest proposals bind lecturers into layers of accountability and monitoring that will stifle intellectual creativity and passion.
Quality teaching within higher education demands freedom, not regulation. Academics need to be free to pursue lines of enquiry in their research, and they need to be free to pass on their knowledge. It is the freedom to enter into the unknown and to engage in experimentation that makes scholarship exciting. Taking students on this intellectual adventure is at the the heart of university teaching. Students deserve to be seduced by the knowledge of their chosen discipline and inculturated into its practices. This can only occur when lecturers are free to be spontaneous and to share their passions.
Not only are demands to quantify and account for what happens in the lecture theatre irreconcilable with academic freedom, the pressure to leave students satisfied contributes towards a climate of self-censorship. The temptation to secure positive evaluations through removing from the curriculum anything too challenging or potentially upsetting is hard to resist.
The freedom for lecturers to teach what and, just as important, how they deem best was never properly won in the UK. Such freedoms as do exist were hard won over many years.
The proposals set out in Fulfilling our Potential pose a threat to academic freedom that will be detrimental not just to scholarship but to quality teaching in higher education. It is imperative that legislation emerging from the government’s latest proposals acknowledges the importance of academic freedom to all aspects of higher education.
Joanna Williams is director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Kent, and education editor of Spiked. She is author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge.