Letters – 27 September 2018

September 27, 2018

Market standard results in a measure of folly

In your 13 September issue, the news story “Rise of edu­sceptics: don’t blame me, says professor” reports Richard Arum as saying that the UK’s teaching excellence framework is the inevitable consequence of academics’ failure to take seriously the assessment of student learning. Another news article, “Standardised tests for learning gain fail to cut it”, reports the decision of the Office for Students to discontinue the learning gain exercise launched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England a few years ago.

People discussing student learning measures often confuse two things. One is the need for clear programme objectives against which rigorous and appropriate assessments can be devised. The other is the desire for information about programme conditions and consequences that can be used to compare different courses, subjects and institutions. Unfortunately, no way has yet been found to meet both requirements with a single set of measures.

Even worse, to the extent that measures such as those used in the TEF become important, they are, ironically, likely to militate against the first need: why put lots of time and effort into devising complex schemes of assessment when the institution will be judged by criteria that most teachers would regard as marginal, at best, to the quality of student learning?

This is yet another example of how the intensification of competition and its corollary of the student as informed consumer, justified on the basis that competition raises quality, actually achieves the precise opposite.

Roger Brown
Former vice-chancellor, Solent University and former chief executive, Higher Education Quality Council

Shades of white

The article “London students to be ‘hyper-diverse’ by 2030” (News, 20 September) reports on predicted demographic changes outlined by an AccessHE study. There may be in that study a risk that the white population will be treated as black and minority ethnic students have been in the past, a homogeneous group.

I have a hypothesis that the steep growth in the traditional student-age cohort in the next decade will owe a lot to the offspring of white immigrants, mainly from the European Union. When selecting a university, many may, because of the tuition fee differentials (likely to increase after Brexit), choose to return to their parents’ home country or to go elsewhere in Europe because they may have a more open view of boundaries than even others their age. So, participation and progression may not increase as the study authors have projected. More research is needed on this subgroup.

Ian McNay
Professor emeritus, higher education and management
University of Greenwich

Mobility champions

Last week’s leading article, “Same but different” (Opinion, 13 September), highlighted the metrics-driven judgements that dominate much effort in universities. John Gill is correct to say that viewing universities as a homogeneous mass is unhelpful.

This is particularly sharp in universities such as Solent University, with a commitment to and a tradition of widening participation and success in boosting graduates’ earnings and employment. To compare us with some of the elite, selective universities and to drag us into the endless debate about access is tiresome.

At a debate here with MPs last week, one student shared his story of having two part-time jobs, working 20 hours a week alongside his full-time course, with his maintenance loan predicated on a parental situation more complex than can be imagined. The social mobility heavy lifting is being carried out by universities such as Solent up and down the country.

We do this proudly, receiving the same student fee as other universities but without large alumni donations or impressive research funding. We are not waiting for another metric to assess our valued-added scores; we already understand the factors that contribute to learning and those that get in the way of learning. It is these factors that the government should be focusing on if social mobility is truly to be addressed.

Julie Hall
Professor of higher education
Deputy vice-chancellor
Solent University, Southampton

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