Students at odds with government over measuring teaching quality

Poll of undergraduates ranks ministers’ proposed TEF metric lowest among potential indicators

January 7, 2016
Eight men in tug of war battle
Source: Corbis
Battle of wills: students’ preferred measure was the proportion achieving a good degree. Scholars feared grade inflation

Students have ranked the initial measure proposed for the teaching excellence framework, the results of Quality Assurance Agency reviews, lowest among potential indicators of teaching standards.

In a poll of 1,005 full-time undergraduates for the Higher Education Policy Institute, just 16 per cent of respondents said that they thought QAA judgements were a “very helpful” indicator of teaching quality, giving it the bottom score in the survey.

Under draft proposals for the TEF, English institutions would be allowed to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation for three years from 2017-18 if they had met or exceeded expectations in all sections of a recent QAA review, a bar that most universities would pass.

Students quizzed for the poll felt that the most useful proxy was the proportion of students who achieved a good degree, a measure that many academics fear would lead to grade inflation if it were included in the TEF. Forty per cent of participants described this as a very helpful indicator.

Other measures rated highly by undergraduates included the number of contact hours, the average time taken to receive feedback on assessments and graduate employment statistics.

All these could be considered for the second phase of the TEF, which will introduce further differentiated fee caps from 2018-19 onwards.

Graham Gibbs, former director of the Oxford Learning Institute at the University of Oxford, says that the survey demonstrates how it is “not always appropriate to respond to student preferences”.

Writing in Hepi’s response to the higher education Green Paper, Professor Gibbs argues that the proportion of students getting a good degree and a good job were “both largely a function of the quality of students rather than the quality of a university’s teaching”; and that, despite students’ “persistent obsession” with contact hours, they “do not predict learning gains”.

“The government must choose between obliging universities to give students what they say they want, even if it is counter-educational, and encouraging forms of provision which are known to be educationally effective, whether students want them or not,” Professor Gibbs says.

Professor Gibbs adds that, if “readily available outcome measures” such as employment data are used in the TEF, the exercise “will simply reinforce the existing reputation-based hierarchy” and that “recovering from such a start might be difficult”.

Instead, he argues, the TEF should be based on measures of graduate learning outcomes developed in future, similar to what was envisaged by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (Ahelo) project, or, more realistically, on measures of processes such as student engagement, which are thought to be a better proxy for outcomes.

It “would be sensible”, Professor Gibbs says, “to delay the introduction of higher levels of the TEF until enough valid process measures are available and are more widely understood and trusted.”

Professor Gibbs concludes: “A TEF, and a higher education market, based on reputation would be a disaster for quality, but this is what using [existing] outcome measures could achieve.”

Give private providers ‘proper chance’, says Pearson College head

Proposals in the higher education Green Paper to encourage alternative providers into the sector must be improved if these new institutions are to be anything more than “competition fodder”, the principal of Pearson College London says.

Writing in the Higher Education Policy Institute’s response to the Green Paper, Roxanne Stockwell argues that the consultation document largely describes alternative providers in terms of their impact on existing universities, when in fact they need “a proper chance to grow into worthwhile and successful institutions in their own right”.

In particular, Ms Stockwell says that new institutions should be able to get designation for student loans and permission to recruit from overseas from day one of their existence.

At present, alternative providers need to pass a Quality Assurance Agency review to achieve both, a process that can take up to two years, Ms Stockwell says. They also have to provide three years of audited accounts.

The Green Paper says that options to relax both requirements are being considered, but Ms Stockwell says that new providers will not be able to enter the market in the first place if loans and international recruitment are not immediately available.

Ms Stockwell describes the creation of a “national validation service” for qualifications offered by alternative providers as “essential”, removing the need for new institutions to rely on existing universities for certification: a process that she says is “the equivalent of Apple having to ask Google for permission to release a new iPad”.

Ms Stockwell also says that new providers should be allowed to expand significantly more quickly. The Green Paper proposes to allow the best-performing institutions to increase their number of publicly supported students by 20 or 30 per cent annually, from a starting point of 100.

But she argues that “well over 1,000” students are necessary for independent institutions to be financially sustainable, and that it would probably take eight years to reach that under current proposals.

Chris Havergal

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