People’s memories of university are no basis for the TEF

What lessons are there for public policy from anecdotes about ‘the best years of your life’? asks Nick Hillman

February 25, 2016
'Memory Lane' road sign

There are many things we have yet to learn about the teaching excellence framework. We still don’t know, for example, exactly what metrics will be used, how the four different levels are going to work and the value of linking TEF results to fee rises. But there is one thing we know for certain: it is impossible to talk about the TEF without referring to one’s own time at university. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, did so in his speech to the Universities UK annual conference, when he referred to lecturers “like Martin Conway, who could make even Belgian stamps interesting”.

I plead guilty myself. Twenty-five years ago, I was a fresher at the University of Manchester. As I have said in Times Higher Education before, I chose Manchester purely for its music scene. When I arrived in 1990, this was indeed excellent. So was some of the education on offer, but much of it was not. The problems were threefold: the curriculum, the learning environment and the pedagogy.

We were meant to cover the whole of history from 800BC to the present day. That would have been impossible to do properly even in the 40 hours a week that the Quality Assurance Agency recommends, let alone the hours we worked. So we skated over the surface in the most cursory way.

The learning environment was poor partly because the physical estate did not suit the number of students. I did a subsidiary course with about 700 other people, but the lecture hall had fewer than 500 seats, so many people could not get in. Limited contact hours and large class sizes are not always a barrier to learning, but they are a problem when both occur at the same time. Our academics could not possibly hope to know who we were or to monitor our progress. When I first looked at the Robbins report some years later, I was amazed that students had been surveyed on how many hours they were taught in classes of one to four, as I had no idea that university teaching ever occurred in such small groups.

Some of the teaching left a lot to be desired. What I remember best is a fortnightly seminar that always started 10 minutes late and began with a 10-minute brainstorm followed by a 10-minute fag break. Once the academic returned, we would spend 10 minutes drawing links between the points from the brainstorm on the board, rather as if we were at primary school, before ending the session 10 minutes early. It was not good teaching, nor good teamwork, nor useful facilitation of independent learning.

This past experience matters to me. It is a key reason why I care so much about the quality of university teaching today. But what lessons are there for public policy from my personal experience? None at all. It was more than 20 years ago, and one course at one institution – today, the University of Manchester has its own impressive unit tasked with continuous evidence-based improvements in teaching. And the funding for my education was totally different from, and considerably lower than, what is available for today’s undergraduates – the unit of resource had been falling for 15 years and tuition fees had yet to be reintroduced.

Another reason why personal anecdotes about people’s own university days should not influence policy is the high proportion of senior civil servants and politicians who were undergraduates at Oxbridge. While stories of poor teaching in the past at Oxbridge are relatively common, no one argues that the Oxford tutorial or the Cambridge supervision is a bad model. But neither is it a useful model when thinking about the sector as a whole, for most institutions do not have the endowments to make it possible. (The dominance of Oxbridge is also, incidentally, why many policymakers do not understand the importance of students’ unions, which play a lesser role among the manicured lawns of Oxford and Cambridge.)

The iron law that higher education observers must always tell anecdotes about their own experience when speaking of the TEF should therefore be counterbalanced by another: that listeners should take such anecdotes with a massive dose of salt when setting policy.

Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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