English universities ‘not very good at teaching’, says Hepi president

Bahram Bekhradnia says teaching excellence framework could be welcome ‘counterweight’ to research imperative

December 14, 2015
Student leaning head on blackboard

The president of the Higher Education Policy Institute has claimed that English universities are “not very good at teaching”.

Speaking at a Royal Society debate on the government’s proposals for a teaching excellence framework, Bahram Bekhradnia said that he welcomed the initiative because universities needed “a counterweight to the imperative to do research”.

The UK’s world-class research performance, Mr Bekhradnia said, had been “achieved at the expense of teaching”, and that there was “ample evidence” to prove this.

The intervention came after Jo Johnson, the universities minister, was pressed by MPs on his claim that some university teaching was “lamentable”.

Mr Bekhradnia cited a survey of 70,000 graduates in 11 European countries, conducted by the Open University, which found that students in England spent only 30 hours a week in classes and private study, the lowest figure after the Czech Republic and significantly below other nations.

He also said that a survey of students on the European Union’s Erasmus mobility programme found that 38 per cent of participants found courses in the UK less demanding than programmes in their home countries; a “far larger” score than other responses.

In addition, Mr Bekhradnia said, Hepi’s Student Academic Experience Survey consistently found widespread variation in the amount of time spent studying between institutions.

“We may be outstanding at research but by all accounts we are not very good at teaching,” Mr Bekhradnia. “I am not talking here about contact hours, but about how much attention is given to teaching and how much effort we expect of our students.”

While Mr Bekhradnia said that he welcomed the TEF, he questioned how effective it would be, highlighting that being able to increase fees in line with inflation was a “puny” reward compared to the incentives contained in the research excellence framework.

Mr Bekhradnia, a former director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that it was “very unrealistic” to expect to be able to measure students’ “learning gain” at university. Proxies such as employment data and dropout rates would have to be used, but it is important that these are benchmarked to match institutional contexts, he argued.

“We need a teaching excellence framework,” Mr Bekhradnia said. “But I scratch my head about how it can be introduced and I’m very much afraid of the government cobbling something together that will be more harm than good simply because, in their manifesto, they said that they would.”

Speaking at the same event, Maddalaine Ansell, the chief executive of the University Alliance, said that there was much evidence of good teaching in English universities. She cited evidence including higher education institutions’ performance in the National Student Survey, Quality Assurance Agency reviews, and employment data.

But, she conceded, provision is “patchy and diverse” within and across institutions, with the outcomes for students from some disadvantaged groups being an issue of particular concern.


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