Teaching REF would lead to time wasted ‘giving tuna sandwiches to assessors’

Edinburgh principal Sir Tim O’Shea warns such a system would distract from real mission

June 19, 2015
Tuna sandwich

A teaching equivalent of the research excellence framework would be a bureaucratic distraction for universities, a university leader has warned.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to introduce a framework to “recognise universities offering the highest quality teaching” and it has been suggested that such a system could be used to allocate funding, similar to the REF.

But Sir Tim O’Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh, told the Higher Education after the Election conference that he was against the idea.

“It seems to inevitably create a bureaucratic industry where we spend our time, rather than devising assessments and supporting learning, filling in forms and feeding tuna fish sandwiches to visiting assessors,” Sir Tim said. “We really wouldn’t welcome it at all.”

Other speakers at the event, held on 18 June and organised by the website Policy Review, were more positive about a teaching REF.

Maddalaine Ansell, the chief executive of the University Alliance, said that she would support it as long as it encouraged diversity and innovation.

“A teaching excellence framework is a real opportunity for our group of universities and the sector as a whole, an opportunity to show we are valuable,” she said.

John Widdowson, the president-elect of the Association of Colleges, said a teaching REF would be in line with the demands of students. He highlighted the results of a survey, carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy, that found that learners were more interested in their lecturers having teaching qualifications than being active researchers.

Attendees heard that Jo Johnson, the new universities minister, was likely to be keen on the idea. Alistair Jarvis, director of communications and external relations at Universities UK, said the minister had focused on value for money for students in his early meetings with the organisation.

Alex Bols, the acting chief executive of GuildHE, said that universities should therefore engage with plans for a teaching REF.

“Unless the sector is able to get in front of this debate and help form what that’s going to look like, we are going to have something done to us rather than done with us,” he said.

Speakers at the conference also predicted that a higher education bill would be introduced during the course of this Parliament to tighten regulation of the sector – for example, to better protect the rights of students in cases where institutions close suddenly.

But Andy Westwood, associate vice-president for public affairs at the University of Manchester, warned that the government’s slim majority – and its lack of a majority in the House of Lords – did not bode well for the higher education sector.

“This is the worst possible setting for the stable, long-term decision-making that we in higher education fantasise about,” he said. 


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Reader's comments (1)

Another fine product from the nonsense factory that is HE policy in the UK. It's already been established that the REF is a bloated, inaccurate and largely unconstructive exercise. Now, the Tories want to add a Teaching REF? The conducting of this boondoggle, due to the added complications of student involvement (i.e. we would be measuring the experience of hundreds of thousands, rather than the contribution of tens of thousands) would be equally pointless, but with the added benefit of being prohibitively expensive. In any case, much as the REF is now, this will serve largely as a management tool to flog an already overworked and underpaid cohort of academic staff. Oh, and we'll likely have to hire _lots_ of new administrators (who neither teach nor conduct research, the university's central mission) to handle this. It is obviously hypocritical of the Conservative government to cut funding, demand efficiency, expect greater performance and seek savings, all while proposing to introduce a new and incredibly expensive and time-consuming layer of bureaucratic claptrap that will actively _detract_ from time spent on teaching. Stupid, wasteful, counter-productive and worthless.