Coming to a campus near you

From senior appointments to student surveys, pedagogy is again centre stage – and waiting in the wings is a teaching REF

June 4, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

In case you missed it, there was a big, newsworthy appointment last week at the top of a sprawling, unruly but globally influential organisation.

No, not Sepp Blatter’s inglorious return to the presidency of Fifa – the much more cheering announcement that Louise Richardson is to be the next vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford (pending approval by Congregation).

Richardson, currently head of the University of St Andrews, has a number of noteworthy attributes, alongside the obligatory track record as a researcher and leader.

One, self-evidently, is that she is a woman – the first to lead Oxford in its history; another is that she has been recognised several times for her teaching, winning the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize at Harvard University.

It was interesting to see this latter quality highlighted in Oxford’s announcement, and it begins to suggest a trend started by University College London, another member of the UK’s research elite, when it appointed Michael Arthur as provost with a particular focus on teaching and the student experience.

The publication this week of the Higher Education Policy Institute/ Higher Education Academy Student Academic Experience Survey, now in its 10th year, gives a hint as to why such attention is being paid to teaching. Among the survey’s findings is that, when asked whether they most value teaching qualifications, industry expertise or research activity in their lecturers, students plump firmly for the first two.

Only 17 per cent put research activity as their top priority, compared with 39 per cent for teaching and 44 per cent for professional experience. The students most likely to value “training in how to teach” are those at Russell Group institutions. At the very least this suggests that universities have a job to do in explaining the importance of research-informed teaching.

The Hepi/HEA findings chime with a feeling that teaching remains the unfinished business of the reforms that have changed the landscape of university funding over the past five years.

It was always the intention in the switch from teaching grants to higher tuition fees that students would get more for their money, but the way the system was set up in England pulled the rug from under the government’s plans for a market based on variable fees, which it argued would drive up standards.

There have since been a number of tweaks to try to refocus market pressures, not least the abolition of the student numbers cap, and the Conservative government will be looking at ways to deliver on its manifesto pledge for something akin to a teaching excellence framework.

The problem, apart from any philosophical concerns, is the difficulty of producing rigorous measures of teaching quality. Student satisfaction is one proxy that is used, while alternative survey-based measures such as those used in the Hepi/HEA report, the US’ National Survey of Student Engagement and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s proposed Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes may be others.

But if questions remain about what a TEF would look like and how it would influence universities given the small proportion of teaching funding from the public purse, in a metrics-mad sector – and with that Tory manifesto pledge – there can be little doubt that it’s coming.

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