What’s in a name? Quite a lot, when it comes to higher education reform

Should we be talking about Ofcoll and the ‘degree experience framework’? Diana Beech thinks so

July 7, 2017
Romeo and Juliet
Source: Rex

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play about the “star-cross’d lovers” Romeo and Juliet will be aware of Juliet’s musings over the relationship between what things are called and what they really are. What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet, she states, defiantly showing that the characteristics of something do not change even if the name of it does.

She was right. To a point. 

The problem with Juliet’s argument comes when an object has been given a name that already has connotations of something else. The substance of the item may well remain the same, but people’s perceptions of it will inevitably change in line with their views of what its name now resembles. This is evident in the current reforms to the English higher education sector, where the names chosen for both the new market regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), and the new mechanism for measuring institutional commitment to teaching and learning, the teaching excellence framework (TEF), are evidently misleading.

Would that which we call the OfS or the TEF by any other name smell as sweet? I would argue that they would probably “smell” a lot sweeter. 

Let’s take the OfS first – the Office for Students. An office unambiguously designed to help students? Not quite.

Of course, the underlying intention of this new market regulator is to put students at the heart of the higher education experience and ensure good value for money. However, the OfS was certainly not designed to be the place that students can go to for help and support. They already have organisations such as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) or student advice centres operated by student unions for that.

Nor was the OfS designed to give students control over the way our higher education institutions are regulated. It was the ambiguity of the name that reignited longstanding complaints from the National Union of Students (NUS) that the OfS was to have no student representation on its board.

An amendment was eventually made to the Higher Education and Research Bill (now Act) in November 2016, ensuring that at least one of the ordinary members of the OfS board has experience of representing or promoting the interests of students. 

If you stop and think about it, the OfS does seem an odd name for the new regulatory body. No other regulator or professional association is named after the group it seeks to protect. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) is not named the Office for Pupils; the Civil Aviation Authority is not called the Office for Air Passengers; and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons is certainly not called the Office for Pets.

It seems strange to put students so prominently in the title of the new organisation when, at the end of the day, it is our universities and colleges that are the ones set to be directly affected by the new reforms. I recognise that the government wanted to signal a change in direction for higher education policy with the name OfS and show that it cares about students. But surely something like Ofcoll (the Office for Colleges and Universities) with a suitably student-focused strapline – something like "putting students at the heart of the university experience" – would have helped to avoid much of the confusion that has already arisen about the role and purpose of the new organisation.

It’s too late to rebrand the OfS. After all, the recruitment of the senior leadership team is almost complete. Following the recent appointments of Sir Michael Barber as OfS Chair and Nicola Dandridge as OfS CEO, the onus is now on this new leadership team to rid the OfS of its ambiguity and establish it as the risk-based regulator it was always intended to become – to promote choice and competition in the sector, to oversee quality assurance and to ensure all institutions are meeting regulatory requirements in terms of their services to students.

In his inaugural address, Sir Michael Barber explained the OfS’s relationships “should be characterised by…honest, plain-speaking conversation” – something that is desperately needed for a regulator with a less than clear title of its own. 

Now for the TEF.

Those of us in higher education circles are used to the binary division between teaching and research – a division that has recently been reinforced in Whitehall by the separation of the different functions of universities across two distinct government departments. The teaching functions of higher education institutions now fall under the Department for Education (DfE), while their research capabilities are monitored and funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Long before this departmental split, however, universities were encouraged to focus on and enhance their research capabilities through the performance measurement tool linked to funding, the research excellence framework (REF) and its precursor, the research assessment exercise (RAE).  

Research, nevertheless, has more prominence in some institutions than at others, with some institutions preferring to describe themselves as “teaching-intensive” as opposed to “research-intensive”. Yet, as Roger Brown argues in his description of the TEF as “a raven trying to fly underwater”, previous attempts to monitor how well our institutions are performing in the broad pursuit of teaching and learning have failed.

This includes the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) exercise, which ran in England between 1993 and 2004 but died a quiet death during one of the government’s deregulatory phases. The latest attempt by the universities and science minister, Jo Johnson, to establish a framework to ensure our institutions are not neglecting their duty to provide students with the good quality degrees that they enrolled for is, however, particularly pertinent in an era of tuition fees in excess of £9,000. 

Yet, the name attributed to this exercise – the teaching excellence framework – is once again ambiguous. Despite being intended to refer to the teaching and learning remit of universities in its broadest sense (covering all those activities that allow institutions to provide and award degrees of value to the individual, wider society and the economy), there is a tendency to interpret the word "teaching" as referring to the act of educating and instructing others.

This has led to false perceptions of the TEF as an instrument that seeks to monitor the quality of the lectures, seminars and tutorials provided by our institutions, rather than an assessment of the whole “teaching package” – from the student experience right through to eventual employment outcomes. It has also led some academics to insinuate that Ofsted-style inspections would be a better way of monitoring teaching in our institutions than the complex metrics that are currently used to determine TEF rankings. (However, this proposal would itself be inevitably controversial because of concerns over the threat of “Ofsted tyranny” to academic freedom and autonomy.)

The fact of the matter is that the TEF was never meant to monitor teaching performance in the lecture hall. It was designed to ensure that universities are living up to their duty to give students what they want and what they pay for – namely a good degree with decent employment prospects.

This involves looking at a wide range of features including course design, contact hours, satisfaction levels, learning gain and employment outcomes. The quality and content of lectures obviously forms a part of this and it is hoped the TEF will encourage better teaching over time as universities come to improve their student offerings.

Calling this new measurement tool the TEF may well have seemed the easy thing to do – after all, teaching has long been the ying to the research yang in the world of higher education policy. But, instead, what the name TEF has done is open up a can of worms in the sector, inviting criticism that it fails to accurately measure the act of teaching, rather than recognising it is intended to measure all things that make up the entire degree experience – from the application stage through to the learning process and the eventual benefits of holding a degree. 

Once again, it’s too late to rename the TEF – especially since, semantically at least, it has come to complement its older brother, the REF, quite nicely. That said, however, perhaps the term “degree experience framework” would have been closer to what the TEF is trying to encapsulate?

What is certain is that while the word “teaching” remains in the TEF’s title, policymakers have a task on their hands to get others to understand what the learning process means in its broadest sense. The independent review of the TEF scheduled for the academic year 2019-20 should at least provide a fresh opportunity for the sector to redefine what “teaching” in our colleges and universities actually means in the context of the student experience and reassure academic staff that their teaching activities are not the sole focus of scrutiny. 

The OfS and the TEF are quickly becoming the future of our higher education sector. Explaining exactly what these titles mean is imperative to put an end to ill-founded criticism and to concentrate debate on the areas that matter most – like defining the regulatory framework or refining the TEF metrics and methodology.

The wider world is also watching our reforms closely. Getting the names of the reforms right, or at least their definitions, will help to dispel false assumptions about the priorities and quality of UK institutions. My own names for the initiatives – Ofcoll and degree experience framework – may never be seriously considered in the corridors of Whitehall. Yet, I remain convinced that changing the linguistic point of reference for the new reforms would help to refocus attention on improving the policy as opposed to decrying its flaws.

Diana Beech is director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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