Fourth Degree by Laurie Taylor – 21 March 2019

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March 21, 2019
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Degrees of significance

Laurie Taylor reports

“Quite frankly, Professor Nason has missed the whole point of the TEF.”

That was how Sir Geoffrey Rumble, vice-chancellor of the gold-rated University of Old Sarum, responded to the news that Guy Nason, vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, had taken the unusual step of reporting the teaching excellence framework to the UK’s statistics watchdog.

What was it about Professor Nason’s action that so upset Sir Geoffrey?

“It’s blindingly obvious. Professor Nason bangs on about it being impossible to divide higher education teaching into gold, silver and bronze categories when the differences between them are so very slight and when the sector is so diverse. And then, to top it all, he concludes that these various statistical failures “cast serious doubt on the credibility of all the TEF awards made so far”.

But surely when such concerns are voiced by one of the country’s leading statisticians, they deserve attention?

“Not at all. Professor Nason – who, I notice, currently works at the silver-rated University of Bristol – should surely have discovered by now what everyone else already knows: that TEF ratings tell you as much about the real quality of university teaching as they do about the price of rhubarb. Even people from bronze universities recognise that the TEF is essentially a test of an institution’s capacity to employ crass fabrications, selective staff redundancies and organisational fictions so as to meet a series of challenges devised by people who wouldn’t recognise the true value of higher education if it bit them on the ankle.

“One doesn’t want to be sniffy about the misuse of statistics but, on the whole, Professor Nason might have been better employed undermining the claim that nine out of 10 dogs prefer Pedigree Chum.”

Do you really understand the REF?

Ron Tallboys, the distinguished author of the classic text on academic life Unpublish and Be Damned, has expressed amazement at the level of academic ignorance about the next research excellence framework.

“Many academics”, contended Dr Tallboys, “fail to understand that current REF targets have nothing to do with research excellence but everything to do with the pressing need for universities to sack as many members of staff as possible in order to help pay for their absurdly unrealistic property developments.”

Dr Tallboys went on: “It’s a very straightforward process. A significant number of arbitrarily selected academics are told that their research has been graded below three stars. These “failing academics” are then required to undergo a “mock REF” chaired by a compliant external assessor, which will almost invariably conclude that they are either to be reduced to “teaching only” status or placed on an “instant dismissal” list.

So why did some academics still believe that the exercise might have some connection to research performance?

“It’s all to do with the smiling. Nearly every academic engaged in the REF testing process knows it to be both invalid and unreliable and so wears a knowing smile on their face during the proceedings. Candidates are thereby led to believe that everyone is on the same sceptical side until they sadly observe that the same knowing, collusive smiles accompany the news of their imminent dismissal.”

Come in, No 6. Your number’s up!

Although the University of Winchester has apologised for the human resources email that mistakenly revealed the exact identity of members of staff who were at risk of redundancy, the current rush to sack academic staff has prompted a number of similar communication mishaps.

At the University College of Totleigh Towers, the names of 22 candidates for compulsory redundancy were inadvertently projected on to the side of the university’s cooling tower, while at the University of Tadcaster, 18 candidates for redundancy only realised their plight when they found that the nameplates on their tutorial offices had been subject to an overnight bout of intense sandblasting.

Members of the Board

There is mounting concern about university governing bodies. According to Michael Shattock, a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, “more and more responsibility (is) being thrust on these boards and they are less and less able to cope with it”.

But Professor Shattock’s contention was quickly challenged.

“I’m intensely proud of our board of governors,” claimed the vice-chancellor of the University College of Tewkesbury. “Its members exhibit exactly the type of disengagement from the real world that is so critical to any serious discussion of my ever-increasing personal stipend.”

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