TEF metrics plan attacked by academics

Open letter to Hefce and UUK chiefs attracts 169 signatures as quality assessment and TEF proposals debated

October 20, 2015
Metrics and data

Leading academics have signed an open letter warning that it would be “completely inappropriate” to use data on student outcomes to measure university teaching standards.

Some 169 researchers have put their names to the letter, which tells Madeleine Atkins, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that student attainment “is never a direct or reliable measure of teaching quality because it is influenced by a host of factors unconnected to the quality of teaching”.

Hefce is proposing to use metrics in a revamped system of quality assessment for universities, while similar data is expected to be employed in the government’s planned teaching excellence framework.

The letter is also addressed to Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and president of Universities UK. It says the representative body should “withdraw its endorsement of, and campaign vociferously against” the use of metrics on student outcomes.

The letter says that it would be wrong to use student attainment to measure teaching quality because the largest single determinant of educational outcomes is social class and this also affects other potential metrics, such as student employment and salary data.

“Given the strong social determinants of student outcomes, any metrics system based on them may reflect pre-existing social hierarchies rather than providing any objective measure of ‘teaching quality’,” the letter says.

The academics also warn that there is a “clear risk” that using data on attainment as a proxy for teaching standards would remove responsibility for outcomes from the students themselves, highlighting that students vary in their motivation to acquire new skills.

“If student outcomes are implicitly made the sole responsibility of teachers, the message sent to students is that they do not need to take ownership of their own learning experience and work hard to succeed: if they fail, it is the fault of their lecturers,” the letter says.

Other issues raised include a concern that it would be impossible for metrics to capture the full range of skills and qualities that higher education instils in students, such as critical thinking and community service, and a worry that use of graduate earnings in measuring standards could “potentially devalue subjects and disciplines where students are oriented towards less remunerative but socially important professions”.

The letter’s signatories include Ron Barnett, emeritus professor of higher education at the UCL Institute of Education; Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick; and David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London.

Other signatories include three prominent academics at the University of Oxford: Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history; Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology; and Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said that the specific measures of the TEF would be consulted on as part of the forthcoming higher education Green Paper.

“We will welcome a wide range of views to contribute to this process,” the spokeswoman said.


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