Jo Johnson under fire for calling some university teaching ‘lamentable’

Universities minister also tells BIS committee that TEF will look at graduate employment rather than salaries

December 8, 2015
Jo Johnson
Source: PA

Jo Johnson has come under pressure from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee over his description of some university teaching as “lamentable”, declining to answer when asked whether he would use the word again.

The universities and science minister, giving evidence today at the committee’s latest hearing in its inquiry on assessing quality in higher education, also said that the teaching excellence framework would look at rates of entry into graduate jobs rather than graduate salaries, and that the exercise would not be based “just on metrics”.

Read more: If teaching needs fixing, is TEF the right tool for the job?
Read more: Drop link between TEF and fees, vice-chancellors urge MPs

Iain Wright, the Labour chair of the committee, started the questioning of Mr Johnson by noting his speech on the TEF at the Universities UK conference in September, in which the minister said that there was “lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system”.

Some vice-chancellors were angered by the comment, warning that it could damage the reputation of UK universities internationally.

Mr Wright asked “could you tell us where that ‘lamentable’ teaching is?” and “would you use the word ‘lamentable’ again?”

“I certainly made the point,” replied Mr Johnson. “The point was made in order to demonstrate, in order to highlight, that there is patchiness and variability in provision.”

Mr Wright said that “patchiness is not lamentable though”, adding: “Lamentable is an extraordinarily strong word. Would you use that again?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I think there are patches of poor quality provision. And whether or not we want to use that word…I don’t see the need to repeat it ad nauseam. But I think I made my point.”

As evidence of “patchiness” in teaching quality, Mr Johnson cited the findings of the National Student Survey, the Higher Education Policy Institute-Higher Education Academy survey of students and dropout rates which “vary hugely” between institutions – particularly citing dropout rates for black students.

On the detail of the metrics to be included, Mr Johnson said that the TEF was “not going to look at graduate salaries per se”, but would be “focusing on whether they [graduates] are going into a graduate job or further study”.

He added that this data would be “contextualised” to take account of “background factors” such as regional employment rates.

Asked whether the TEF would vary fees on a course-by-course basis, Mr Johnson said that the Green Paper plans were for an institution-based evaluation, but there was scope for the plans to “evolve” in the future.

Mr Johnson said that “for the moment, until we have the learning gain pilots, and they won’t be ready for some years yet” the government was planning to use the metrics being consulted on in the Green Paper for the TEF “supplemented by any qualitative data institutions themselves want to put forward”.

He added: “All of this data, qualitative and quantitative, will be assessed in the round by a panel of expert reviewers…We’re not basing it just on metrics, nor are we basing it just on what institutions supply. But it’s a blend of the two assessed by the panel.”

Mr Wright also asked Mr Johnson if he was “trying to do too much” by making major reforms in the creation of the Office for Students, changes to the quality assurance system and the introduction of the TEF. The Labour MP asked: “You’re clever, but are you that clever?”

Mr Johnson replied that “the system is a coherent whole and it needs to be looked at as a whole”.

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Reader's comments (1)

I heard the select committee hearing. Jo Johnson showed not the slightest understand of the difficulty of measuring the quality of teaching. And neither he nor the VCs mentioned the tricky question of differences in the quality it what is taught. With friends like these, who needs enemies.