Plans to link staff seniority to teaching quality in TEF ‘absurd’

Academics with higher qualifications or more experience could get higher scores in subject-level teaching excellence framework

March 14, 2018
Old and young people
Source: Reuters

Proposals to rate the quality of UK university courses according to the seniority of lecturers have been branded “absurd” and “unfair to early career scholars”.

As part of a consultation on the planned subject-level version of the teaching excellence framework, the Department for Education has outlined six options for a new “teaching intensity” metric that could influence whether a degree is given a gold, silver or bronze award.

One of the options is to use gross teaching quotient, which measures students’ contact hours, weighted by class size – thereby rewarding small-group teaching – as outlined in a specification issued last year.

However, the consultation document also details five other options for measuring teaching intensity, including the creation of a GTQ metric that “would also weight contact time by qualification/seniority of the teacher”.

“The qualification and seniority of the teacher could be seen as proxies for the quality of the teaching,” says the consultation, although it acknowledges that there is “no consensus on what [measures] would be a good proxy for ‘good teacher’”, such as whether they have a PhD or a teaching qualification, or how many years of industry experience they have.

Cathy Shrank, professor of Tudor and Renaissance literature at the University of Sheffield, said that the proposed metric was “clearly ridiculous”, adding that “the idea that seniority of staff can be equated with teaching quality is also so unfair to early career scholars, including PhD students, who put so much into their teaching”.

Other options for measuring teaching intensity include surveying students about their “perception” of how many contact hours they received, or about how much independent study they undertook. Another idea is to measure “engagement with teaching resources” which would draw on data including “use of libraries and digital resources, completion of assignments and other matters”, although the consultation admits that collecting these data might be “very intrusive”.

Michael Merrifield, professor of astronomy at the University of Nottingham, said that the idea of “GTQ as formulated [would create] an absurd measure”, with the staff-to-student ratio rating system containing “cliff edges which would mean that very similar programmes will get arbitrarily different levels of recognition”.

“It also fails to recognise many of the aspects of teaching that are most important to students, such as high-quality assessment, feedback and open-door access to lecturers,” adding that “creating a system that incentivises universities to cut corners on all these more personalised aspects of education is perverse in the extreme”.

Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said that all the new options outlined in the consultation would be “very strange ways to measure teaching quality”.

“Option one for the GTQ [as described last year] looks a bit odd, but the others are so strangely presented that they start to make it look quite good,” he said.

Professor Ashwin added that plans to measure teaching intensity “start from the idea that more is better, rather than understanding that high-quality courses need to be well-designed to balance many different things”.

However, the “strangest thing” about these plans was that they were announced midway through the first year-long pilot exercise for the subject-level TEF, which will conclude in summer 2018, said Professor Ashwin.

“While it lays out lots of options, the whole tone of the consultation is ‘we don’t know what we should do’ when they could have just waited six months for the results of the pilot,” he said, adding that if the consultation’s unusual ideas “were not so worrying, they would be quite amusing”.

Professor Ashwin also predicted that the idea for a “bottom-up” subject-level TEF, in which all subjects were assessed, would be prohibitively expensive, and that a “by-exception” model, in which discipline-level assessments would differ from a provider-level award only if there were significant deviation, would be preferred.

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