Gold dreams, base desires

The TEF results will not halt universities’ unease about the exercise, the prospect of gaming the system or anxiety about long-term consequences

June 22, 2017
Bear reaching for golden stars
Source: iStock

"And though authority be a stubborn bear, yet he is oft led by the nose with gold…”

This observation in The Winter’s Tale seems apt on teaching excellence framework (TEF) results day.

This is the exercise that one vice-chancellor, writing in Times Higher Education earlier this year, said universities were participating in only because the link between the TEF and tuition fees had left them “over a barrel”.

The government probably has no quarrel with this interpretation.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has always been firm in his position that universities are far too resistant to change, and that teaching remains stubbornly eclipsed by research.

The whole point of the TEF is to hold dragging feet to the fire.

And so here we are, with results that suggest to the world that some of the jewels of UK higher education may be more costume than Koh-i-noor – at least when it comes to teaching.

The full results are set out in our news pages, and you will judge for yourself whether they are a surprise.

For outside observers, one can only assume that the appearance of one of our leading international lights, the London School of Economics, in the bronze category, and the majority of the Russell Group falling outside the gold band will challenge a few assumptions.

For universities, what’s at stake is their reputation: that precious commodity, sometimes but not always earned, that is worth its weight in tuition fees either way.

But as Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick (silver, since you ask), argued in these pages back in January, many believe that the TEF is peddling pyrite that is more likely to distract than it is to represent real value.

The arguments about the TEF’s flaws have been rehearsed more times than a Shakespeare play, but if you’ll allow a brief reprise, the crux is that the TEF does not measure teaching.

It measures several other things, all of which are important: graduate employment clearly matters, so do completion rates and student satisfaction.

The issue is whether combining these three, with a dose of contextual information thrown in, produces through some alchemy a measure close enough to teaching quality to merit the name.

It’s worth adding that anyone who has ever been taught anything knows that ultimately the quality comes down to the individuals involved, so to badge an entire institution good, bad or indifferent is reductive, to say the least.

The argument that teaching quality can’t sensibly be measured hasn’t always stuck outside academic circles.

Commentators in the national press have been trenchant in their support of the TEF, typically adopting a somewhat warped version of Johnson’s position based on the idea that the former polytechnics aren’t up to much.

It will be interesting to see whether this view holds when they realise that some of those former polys are graded gold, while some of the grandest names in higher education languish in silver and bronze.

Within universities, there remains deep disquiet about unintended consequences of the TEF.

One vice-chancellor told me recently that the realpolitik that governs universities these days means those that fall below the level expected will immediately divert resources to game the system.

What this means, he suggested, is that universities that have been committing time, energy and cash to improving teaching practice will switch that effort to ruthlessly targeting better National Student Survey results (and there are many ways to improve student satisfaction that have nothing to do with teaching), higher completion rates (stop taking a chance on students who are at most risk of dropping out, perhaps?) and graduate outcomes (with implications for subject mix down the line).

If the TEF metastasises, as planned, to measure at the subject level, there are concerns about what it could do to entire disciplines.

One fear is that it simply wipes them out at some institutions, which in turn would severely restrict their availability to the student demographics those universities serve.

Whether such dire predictions prove accurate, we shall have to wait and see.

Critics, and perhaps ministers, would say that universities have a habit of issuing apocalyptic warnings when the status quo is threatened.

And students, on whose consumerist instincts the TEF is relying if it is to shake things up as intended, have proved in the past that they are not the biddable pawns that the government sometimes assumes.

Will these new medals initiate the consumer market that ministers so desire? Perhaps. But it isn’t a gold-plated certainty.

As for the results themselves, it would be churlish not to congratulate those who have done well after such a long wait.

Gold stars all round.

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