Don’t rush to erect a divisive hierarchy

February 8, 2018

In his challenge to the established hierarchy of universities (“Snobbery towards modern universities is unfair and outdated”, Opinion, 3 February,, Edward Peck, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, proposes new categories of “teaching-intensive” and “teaching-active” universities, to match designations for research.

He asks why a record of success in the teaching excellence framework, in widening participation and in graduate employment does not translate into a judgement of prestige. Peck also laments the enduring truth of the observation made by Sir Howard Newby in 2003 that “the English [have a] genius for turning diversity into hierarchy”.

However, as Roger Brown recently pointed out, we do not have substantial diversity of mission in UK higher education, and we find “reduced between-institution diversity of mission, with emulation being the main form of competition in a positional market”. This desire for emulation has meant that most UK universities have sought to signal prestige by research achievement. To that end, many have imposed research-performance criteria on their research-active staff. Those expectations for readers and professors at Nottingham Trent do not differ significantly from those circulating in Russell Group universities, and neither do the disciplinary consequences for not meeting them.

One limitation of his argument is that Peck does not supply any evidence that research-intensive universities are necessarily less teaching-intensive. In fact, teaching loads have climbed for all staff at Russell Group universities as new workload models have been introduced. At many universities, much of the teaching is delivered by a casualised workforce of highly qualified academics whose career options do not allow any other choice but to be teaching-intensive.

In any case, if we take the student experience as the point of reference, it is not apparent that students enjoy more teaching intensity at universities that are members of Peck’s University Alliance than they do at those of the Russell Group. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has just released the new subject-level TEF measures of teaching intensity, and a key factor in the weighting calculation is staff-to-student ratio. Consequently, if Russell Group universities are found to offer a lower staff-to-student ratio, this will translate into a measure of greater teaching intensity. The TEF will also include a corroborating Teaching Intensity Student Survey, in which students will be asked about their scheduled teaching hours.

It remains to be seen whether the metric will provide clarity, but until there is evidence by which we can compare teaching intensity, it might be best to avoid introducing unwelcome divisions into a sector that would be best served by solidarity.

Liz Morrish

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