One of Lord Willetts’ early acts as minister for universities and science was to delay the research excellence framework by a year. At the time, the notion of rewarding research impact was hotly contested and Lord Willetts wanted to ensure that the debate had time to fully play out before implementing the new approach.
It was a clever move, designed to demonstrate to the higher education sector that here was a minister who shared its concerns and was willing to listen and adapt. This was an approach that I also took when I held the higher education brief during the last Labour government. We have a world-class sector and all good ministers recognise that they need to take it with them when they propose any change. The 2014 REF was not significantly different in architecture to what had been proposed for 2013, but it gave the sector more time to get to grips with the impact agenda and deliver a much higher standard of submission as a consequence.
Jo Johnson, the current minister for universities and science, could do worse than to emulate Lord Willetts’ example in considering his next steps in implementing the teaching excellence framework.
The ambition to put teaching on an equal footing with research is a longstanding one, discernible as far as back as the Robbins report of 1963. Successive governments have made some progress: indeed, the National Student Survey, which I launched in 2005, has had real impact and driven improvements in teaching quality. But a system-wide step change has remained elusive. Now that university funding is firmly in the hands of students, the need to raise the status of teaching is more pressing than ever. Students from diverse backgrounds require creative and inspirational pedagogy if they are to achieve their aspirations, and Johnson is to be commended for grasping this nettle so briskly.
But all the evidence we have available from independent and well-informed commentators such as Graham Gibbs, former director of the Oxford Learning Institute at the University of Oxford, suggests that we are not yet adequately equipped to arrive at meaningful judgements about the quality of teaching in our universities at the system level. The metrics we have available, as the recent Green Paper admits, are poor proxies for teaching quality. We take, for example, student retention and progression data very seriously, but we also acknowledge that they are influenced by the challenges students face in their daily lives, as well as their level of engagement with their studies.
Individual institutions make judgements about teaching quality on the basis of peer observation, student and employer engagement, detailed quality assurance processes and continuous professional development informed by research into learning and teaching. We continually pursue excellence by bringing our staff and students together to develop and enhance their learning environment. But it is not yet clear how these deeply contextual processes can be translated into qualitative information that would enable an external review panel to make a judgement.
The current proposals for three or four discrete levels of TEF are not nearly nuanced enough to reflect the diversity of forms of excellent teaching on offer to students. Indeed, having different levels will send a counter-intuitive and potentially damaging signal internationally about the quality of our world-class sector, implying that even with a collectively high bar for academic quality, “excellence” is only ever available to a few outliers. Furthermore, knowing that a small, specialist institution, a large research intensive university and a medium-sized regional university with close links to business all boast TEF level 3 does not offer much of the additional information students say that they want – specifically, how and what they will be taught and whether their curriculum will prepare them for the next phase of their lives and careers.
Yet there is no reason why we could not get there. We are moving forward with understanding learning gain – the distance students travel while in higher education, and, therefore, the value that universities add to ensure that students achieve and improve. We could also do more to understand and quantify the non-economic benefits of higher education to individuals, so that students can be fully informed about the transformative power of university. We could, for instance, pilot the production of qualitative data and case studies of impactful teaching to test whether it is possible for independent panels to make robust judgements. And we could rely for the first three years of the TEF on Quality Assurance Agency review as the single test of teaching quality. The government has already rightly acknowledged that that will work for the first year.
UK higher education is a national success story. Student satisfaction is high, graduates continue to find employment and international students continue to come, knowing that a degree from a UK university will open doors around the world. There is no doubt that more could be done and that higher education needs to continue to adapt to ensure the best student experience possible. But in the absence of any obviously burning platform, we have the time to road-test the TEF, to develop the right metrics, to build a consensus and to progress with the confidence and backing of the sector.
Higher education ministers come and go, but a well-delivered reform can leave a real and lasting legacy.
Bill Rammell is vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire. He was minister for higher education in the Labour government from 2005 to 2008.