Universities minister Sam Gyimah tweeted on 12 March that he would be appearing on Radio 4 to discuss what he called new “consumer-style ratings for university courses to help drive value for money”.
He later told the Today programme that, from 2020, prospective students would be able to choose their degree using an online tool rather like moneysupermarket.com.
There are a number of reasons why such plans for a subject-level teaching excellence framework are highly problematic, not least because what graduates earn will be a key measure used to evaluate degree programmes.
First, graduate earnings do not measure teaching quality. Numerous studies, and even the government’s own statistics, have shown that the financial successes of students in later life are, to a large degree, determined by factors that are in place well before they walk through our doors.
These factors include gender, ethnicity, the area of the country in which they grew up, and their family’s wealth and connections, as can be seen in the Sutton Trust’s report from 2014, which shows that private school pupils are likely to earn almost £200,000 more between the ages of 26 and 42 than those who attend state schools. This was not caused primarily by the educational excellence of their higher education institutions.
The Social Mobility Commission’s report from October 2017 made a similar point. Unpaid work placements lasting more than four weeks are commonplace and crucial for career prospects, but only wealthy families can afford to subsidise their children – an average cost of £1,000 a month – to do them, said the study. As a colleague at another university tweeted this morning: “I teach mostly working-class students with a high BME proportion in an unfashionable university in an economically depressed area. Apparently their low salaries will be my fault.”
Second, rating degrees by earnings suggests that wealth is all that matters. It incentivises graduates migrating to London and the south east, and embarking on handsomely remunerated careers in the City, rather than valuing the much less well-paid work that our society so badly needs, including – but not limited to – teaching, social work or the creative industries (the social, cultural and – yes – economic value of the latter is attested by a report for the British Council in 2016).
The brain drain away from the regions (where salaries for comparable jobs are significantly lower) that this system implicitly endorses is also hugely damaging. Joined-up government thinking would be promoting – not disincentivising – the presence and retention of skilled graduates in more economically deprived areas.
Third, during his interview on Today, Gyimah made a lazy equation between contact hours and teaching quality. Connecting them, as he did, takes no account of the pedagogical appropriateness of different forms of teaching, the need to give students time to prepare, the aptitude of the person doing the teaching, or the role of teaching intensity.
For instance, one hour of small-group teaching is not of the same intensity as a one-hour lecture. Nonetheless, simply providing more and more contact hours, or even more small-group teaching, is not going to automatically improve the quality of the students’ learning.
A university education is designed to train students to think critically and independently. In my area of the arts and humanities, this not necessarily achieved by more face-to-face teaching.
At one university where I worked, for instance, final-year students were taught in two two-hour small-group sessions per module. Because students took three modules concurrently, this equated to 12 hours’ contact time a week, which looks great on paper.
However, there was not enough time for them to read and reflect fully on the amount of material needed to generate informed, high-quality discussion across all three modules.
The result? Despite the small-group format, the finalists became quite passive learners and wanted much more spoon-feeding than the same cohort of students had required the previous year when the weekly contact hours for each module comprised a one-hour lecture and a two-hour seminar as part of the nine contact hours offered in the week.
Indeed, the much-maligned lecture can be an extremely efficient and inspiring way to impart information, despite its top-down nature that does not explicitly encourage interaction.
This is not to say that prospective students should not have access to information about contact hours and class sizes, or about graduate employability.
However, this information is complex and requires nuance and context. As the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s website notes, the “key performance indicators” that it currently collates for UK universities cannot be redacted into data that can then be meaningfully demonstrated by a league table.
Nor can it be delivered via a “consumer-style ratings tool” that you might consult when buying car insurance or a mobile phone.
Cathy Shrank is professor of Tudor and Renaissance literature at the University of Sheffield.