'Damaging overuse' of hype criticised

July 6, 2007

Rebecca Attwood surveys the agenda for this week's Higher Education Academy conference, and reports on award-winning teachers

False or exaggerated claims to "excellence" in teaching and research are among the most damaging features of the current university system, the Higher Education Academy conference will hear this week.

Overuse of words such as "excellence" and "world-class" and insupportable claims in university prospectuses are devaluing the terms, according to David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Speaking to The Times Higher ahead of a conference debate on a motion that the word "excellence" has become meaningless, Sir David, former vice-chancellor of Brighton University, said: "The reasons why I support the motion are rooted in a scholarly argument for self-reflection and care in expression, not because I think that UK higher education has gone to the dogs.

"On the contrary, I think that the expanded system of higher education that we have created is a significant improvement on the crabbed, self-satisfied and often patronising system that it has come to replace.

"Not everything has improved, however, and one of the most damaging features of our current estate is the way in which we have colluded in the devaluation and irresponsible misuse of terms: terms like 'elite', 'world-class' and, above all, 'excellent'."

He said exercises with his students studying on the IoE's MBA in higher education management had shown that assertions made in university prospectuses did not always live up to scrutiny. "So-called 'unique selling-points' are rarely such. Claims are only occasionally, and then imperfectly, supported by evidence," said Sir David.

Many statements, such as "within easy reach of central London" make those who are responsible for delivering them "seriously uncomfortable", he believes.

Sir David said: "Lazy over-claiming of this kind is one of the first things we teach students in higher education to guard against."

Meanwhile, league tables often fail to take into account many of the indicators of high performance by less research-intensive universities, such as teaching quality and widening participation.

And he thinks academics who complain endlessly about the current state of affairs also share the blame: "Our students have, on all sorts of measures, made a success of mass higher education, often against the odds."

"Not least, today's undergraduates do know that the world does not owe them a living, as perhaps it did when no more than 10 to 12 per cent of each age cohort became graduates.

"It is chiefly out of respect for them that we need to curb our hyperbolic tendency and to use evaluative terms about what they and we do that are measured, evidence-based and leave room for improvement; not brands that scream, most frequently about 'excellence'," Sir David said.

Peter Reader, a member of the Higher Education External Relations Association, and director of marketing and communications at Bath University, said Sir David was correct about universities making excessive claims "in some senses", but he added that the need to have professional marketing was self-evident.

He said: "Too often universities have failed to satisfy the needs of their customers assuming, of course, they have tried to find out what they were in the first place.

"For example, when courses failed to recruit, it was only then the universities concerned even considered the course subjects offered might not have not been those students wished to study. Marketing should contribute at strategic level, a vital contributor to institutional planning."

Patricia Broadfoot, vice-chancellor of Gloucestershire University, will argue against the motion. She said the results of the National Student Survey, the popularity of the UK as a choice for overseas students and the impact of the UK's research output were all proof that excellence is a meaningful term in UK higher education.

"And we are producing this level of undoubted excellence with significantly less resource than we had ten years ago," Professor Broadfoot said.


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