Letters – 2 August 2018

August 2, 2018

Give student evaluations serious thought

The research on student evaluations of teaching is inconsistent, largely because the instruments vary so widely. The many potential limitations of SETs are outlined in “‘Tide turning’ against using student evaluations to rate academics”, although interestingly one of the strongest correlations is not mentioned: awarding high grades almost always boosts a lecturer’s evaluation scores. Nonetheless, the article gives no hint as to how teaching effectiveness should be evaluated instead.

There are, of course, some academics who believe that teaching quality should not matter – that learning is for students, not lecturers, to sort out themselves – or is too controversial or evanescent to be evaluated. Those of us who think otherwise will wonder how else the judgements of those most affected by teaching might be sought.

“Peer review of teaching”, which I’ve experienced in the UK and Canada, can sometimes provide constructive feedback and advice, but it is useless as an evaluative process: academics are usually not qualified or trained in teaching or in the assessment of teaching, and at my university academics seeking tenure or promotion simply ask their friends to review them. The alternative would be some equivalent to the UK’s Ofsted, with its trained assessors going into schools, but you can imagine how popular that would be; academics subjected to something like Ofsted would soon be clamouring for the reintroduction of student evaluations.

Students are not consumers. Nonetheless, they are service users who incur substantial debt, in most countries, and spend several years of their lives pursuing their degrees. Along with their own responsibility for learning, they have a reasonable expectation that universities and scholars will take their opinions seriously. Moreover, they will continue to share their opinions unregulated on social media.

In my experience, the value of students’ opinions is proportionate to the seriousness of the instrument used to gauge them. Thin, generic, silly evaluation questions get commensurate responses. Sustained discussion lacks anonymity but yields much more interesting, valuable and considered insights. In other words, student evaluations of teaching are not wrong because they value students’ opinions too much, but rather because they do not take them seriously enough. Student evaluation of teaching is too important to be left to trivialising questionnaires, but universities (which want a cheap instrument) and academics who are disdainful of their own students form a “bishops and bootleggers” front against anything more effective.

Via timeshighereducation.com

Neoliberal stricture

In his opinion article “Academic monopolies are nothing to be delighted about”, Steve Fuller argues that academics are wrong to criticise the impact of neoliberal policies on universities because these are “based on intuitive notions of fair play” that promote democratic debate. Market-based competition tackles inherited monopolies of knowledge that have, in the past, perpetuated established elites. But to argue this is to embrace a very narrow view of how neoliberalism shapes the academy.

Contrary to Fuller’s claims, the impact of market-based orthodoxies as the foundations for academic excellence has reinforced a singular perspective on how the world works. This is most notable in disciplines associated with business and finance. Academics who wish to publish in certain top journals, a prerequisite for the research excellence framework, invite rejection if they are critical of market imperatives that underpin the interests of commercial publishers, research funders – and academic authorities who have their eye on the main chance. It does not do to bite the hand that feeds. Monopoly and privilege re-enter by the back door.

Noel Whiteside
Institute for Employment Research
University of Warwick
Visiting professor, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment
University of Oxford

Precipitous OfS

Those on the Office for Students’ new email list are receiving links to a good deal of activity and a weekly round-up. This is beginning to indicate the ways in which the OfS is shaping itself and the pattern of its activities so far (many of which seem to be influenced by media coverage).

During the debates on the higher education and research bill, members of the House of Lords expressed worries about the mode of creation of statutory instruments needed to fill out the detail of the new legislation. On 4 July, the Commons Select Committee on Statutory Instruments raised concerns about certain regulations in a proposed statutory instrument to be made under the Higher Education and Research Act. These, it said, “appear to confer legislative functions on the OfS in a way that amounts to sub-delegation of a kind that requires express enabling power”.

The Department for Education’s defence dated 10 July may now be read with the select committee’s published recommendation. The committee is not persuaded that Parliament intended to permit: “the Secretary of State to delegate to the OfS any element of the powers conferred on him by sections 9 and 39 of the 2017 Act, let alone to confer a very broad discretion on the OfS”.

The draft regulations, it says, simply set out “the names of the parts of the register in which the relevant providers are entered”; this “gives no indication of the matters which have been determined by the OfS as qualifying a particular provider to be entered into the particular part of the register”. These names “are capable of relating to an almost limitless range of scenarios”.

The committee, writing when the register was “as yet, unwritten”, was “unclear how Parliament can be expected to scrutinise and approve regulations made by the Secretary of State under the affirmative procedure” if “the real decision-making contemplated by the enabling powers” is “done by the OfS” and “could in any event be changed by the OfS at any time without scrutiny by Parliament”. The committee has accordingly reported the regulations “for doubt as to whether they are intra vires because the sub-delegations of legislative power to the OfS are not clearly authorised by the 2017 Act”.

The committee understood at its meeting on 18 July “that the register may not be finalised or published by the time that Parliament is expected to approve the draft Regulations”. On 19 July, the OfS published the first 42 “registered” providers, with “specific ongoing conditions” for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, which must respond by the end of February 2019 with an evaluation of the “impact” of their financial support for students and give “the results and outcomes of that evaluation”. In principle, that could lead to their no longer being able to grant degrees.

One wonders whether the OfS has jumped the gun.

G. R. Evans

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