There were no time machines, jet packs or robots in the coalition government’s vision of the future in its 2011 White Paper on higher education in England. Nevertheless, a few of its bolder assertions might now be judged as fantasy by critics.
In the foreword to the document, titled Students at the Heart of the System, which was published six months after MPs voted to raise fees to £9,000, Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the then universities and science minister, proclaimed: “We want there to be a renewed focus on high-quality teaching in universities so that it has the same prestige as research.”
The White Paper itself promised to “remove the regulatory barriers that are preventing a level playing field for higher education providers of all types, including further education colleges and other alternative providers”. By increasing student choice, the diversity of courses and competition, this would “lead to higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching, and staff earning promotion for teaching ability rather than research alone”.
Has that vision failed? Recent events at the University of Surrey – where job cuts are proposed for a politics department with an admired teaching record – suggest to some that universities are basing decisions on research priorities more than ever following the 2014 research excellence framework.
Or is the government’s vision of parity between teaching and research still quietly being worked on, in the shape of emerging ideas on better indicators for teaching performance? Could we even, one day, see a kind of “teaching REF”, perhaps allocating some funding on the basis of teaching excellence? The idea is thought to have been discussed privately by Mr Willetts.
This month, Surrey – whose vice-chancellor is Sir Christopher Snowden, the president of Universities UK – announced plans to cut the number of academics in its politics department from 14 to six.
On most measures currently used to judge teaching (although such measures are problematic for many) the politics department scores highly. It was ranked fourth in the UK in the 2014 National Student Survey, with an overall student satisfaction score of 97 per cent. In the same year, it was announced that the department’s graduates had scored an employment rate of 100 per cent in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey.
In 2013-14, Jack Holland, senior lecturer in international relations, won the Vice-Chancellor’s Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence at Surrey and the British International Studies Association–Higher Education Academy Award for Excellence in Teaching International Studies.
In the 2014 REF, however, Surrey’s politics department scored poorly. In the politics and international relations field, on grade point average score, it was ranked 50th out of 56th.
Marie Breen-Smyth, chair in international politics at Surrey, said that the department had been “celebrated as an example of how to do good practice in learning and teaching”. Teaching performance was “all excellent and wonderful”, Professor Breen-Smyth continued. “But, clearly, that is being completely discounted.”
A “Save Surrey’s Politics Department” Facebook page, which bills itself as “student-led”, had attracted 2,010 likes and 1,136 signatures for a petition as of 20 March.
A joint statement on the department was issued on 19 March by Sir Christopher and Matthew Flinders, chair of the Political Studies Association and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.
It says that the department has “achieved excellent results in terms of student satisfaction, student performance and outreach activities”. But “student numbers, research income and research profile have been disappointing, and the current consultation reflects the need to address these issues”, the statement adds.
A consultation on the plans to cut jobs closes on 8 May. “No decisions have been taken and the university would welcome the submission of a new strategic plan for the department of politics that embraces the need for change with a commitment to research-led teaching,” the joint statement says.
The Council for the Defence of British Universities argued in a blog post that the case highlights broader issues across the sector. It describes the Surrey politics department as being an example of a university “using REF 2014 performance as the benchmark against which staff are assessed, disregarding aspects of job performance which are not covered by this, such as the teaching activities that presumably contributed to the [high NSS] student ratings”.
Gordon Campbell, chair of the CDBU’s executive committee and professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, said that in vice-chancellors’ eyes “what matters is differential funding. That in turn means grant capture, student numbers, international students and the REF. There is no differential funding for good teaching, nor is there a financial penalty for poor teaching, so the notion that the £9K fee regime would enhance the quality of teaching would seem to be a fantasy.”
On the national picture, Mr Willetts told Times Higher Education: “We’ve had a generation where all the incentives have been around research, not teaching…These are now changing and the culture is changing. But it is taking time.”
Some point to the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project being carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as a potential way forward to measure the “learning gain” or “value added” for students on different courses at different universities.
The OECD has described Ahelo as potentially amounting to a “direct evaluation of student performance at the global level”.
Meanwhile, the Higher Education Funding Council for England says that it is “working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Higher Education Academy to explore learning gain in more depth”. A scoping study has been carried out and a report will be published in “early spring”.
If these measures of learning gain come to fruition and were combined with a measure of student engagement in learning that goes beyond the current format of the NSS, could the vision of a “teaching REF” supposedly held by Mr Willetts be fulfilled?
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser to Mr Willetts, said: “The teaching REF idea is still doing the rounds. I understand it is under discussion in Hefce.”
Citing the possibilities offered by Ahelo, he argued that “good teaching does still need more status and reward”. Mr Hillman continued: “I think perhaps there has been more progress on the issue of better teaching since £9K fees came in than any hard data prove but I also think the removal of student number controls could have a bigger impact than higher fees because students will be more able to vote with their feet than in the past. We also need a better credit-transfer system for those on courses that don’t suit [them].”
In the eyes of policymakers who want better status for teaching, it seems that metrics on learning gain are the main game in town. That will, of course, come too late for those who find their jobs at risk at Surrey.
And opinions are likely to be divided on whether the prospect of a “teaching REF” amounts to future utopia or dystopia.