Quality points

February 7, 2018

Mary Curnock Cook’s address to the annual general meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) was robust and provocative (“Prioritise students or face more regulation, says ex-Ucas head”, News, 1 February). I should like to comment on some of the issues mentioned in your report.

1) With regard to the need to shift priorities from research to teaching, as Dorothy Bishop noted in her response to Curnock Cook, it is unfair to blame academics for any imbalance because (a) many of them show real dedication to teaching, and (b) it is the financial incentives imposed through the research excellence framework that have skewed the priorities of institutions in favour of research.

2) The CDBU has campaigned vigorously against the marketisation of higher education for a number of reasons. One is the risk inherent in encouraging a proliferation of low-cost, low-quality, for-profit providers ; another is the tendency for such a system to generate a transient teaching force, which cannot be in the best interests of students . Third, it is misguided to infer from the fact that higher education is now financed substantially through student loans that it should therefore be treated as a consumer good.

3) To argue that those who criticise the teaching excellence framework for its lack of credible metrics should suggest some other way of measuring teaching quality is to miss the point of the criticisms. The maintenance of high standards by the academic profession depends on the freedom of academics to make independent judgements about the teaching and assessment of students in their subject area.

4) In its response to the consultation on the functions of the Office for Students, the CDBU challenged the use of the phrase “value for money” as a proxy for the quality of teaching provided because it clouds the issue. Perceptions of what students say they want are no substitute for the independent judgement of academics on what students need to do in order to achieve the level of qualification to which they aspire.

Let’s hope that the OfS, once its modus operandi has been clarified, will succeed in discouraging poor-quality education while allowing institutions that pose lower risks to students to flourish; that the independent review of the TEF required under the Higher Education and Research Act will take us towards a quality assurance regime that does enjoy the broad confidence of the academic profession; and that, under the new minister for universities, the HE sector may continue to provide the high quality and diversity of higher education that has been the basis of its outstanding international reputation in the recent past.

David Midgley
Professor of German literature and intellectual history
St John’s College

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