Want to raise the quality of teaching? Begin with academic freedom

Sir Keith Burnett considers the challenges of introducing a teaching excellence framework

August 3, 2015

Politicians who want to improve the quality of teaching through increased competition may ironically simply end up with ever greater systems of centralised control. Following Hayek (the philosopher father of free market economics), I would say this is not the way to make the best of our teachers.

“It is because freedom means the renunciation of direct control of individual efforts that a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.” - Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

We do understand when someone in government says that we must act in the best interest of our students and their parents to improve the quality of teaching. The next step for some, however, is to reach for a market-based solution to achieve this. They say we simply have to create a free market for higher education products, and competition is bound to drive up standards.

Student choice will become the natural driver of higher quality, they say.

In traditional marketplaces, quality is measured by the price someone is willing to pay for a product. With greater competition the price can even go down as the quality goes up. The customer mechanism is its own regulator. Easy.

But when it comes to real life, there are numerous areas of social good where even the most hard-line free marketeer knows that a truly free market is not possible or, even if it was, the public would reject it. Think of health and the NHS; defence and policing; electricity supply; and most of all education – from the quality of schools to the nature of teaching in our universities.

So the government is forced by us – by public opinion – to move away from a free market alone, and to speak instead of “consumer choice” mixed with huge doses of regulation (state intervention by another name). The regulation is supposed to give a basis for informed choice. And so comes the real descent into controlling what happens and endangering the freedoms we should cherish.

To provide information for consumer choice, a higher authority constructs measures of what is “good”. And in defining good, the ruler will inevitably use those indicators which can be most easily collated en masse and measured, dumping most of the knowledge and skills of individuals in the ditch. The regulator may also inadvertently omit what a particular student needs. Specific insight is replaced by generalisations.

The desire to support the very best teaching is in itself a noble one, of course. Our students, who now are making very serious financial investments in higher education, want to be sure of value. The question is, will this genuinely serve their needs?

We need to make sure we don’t make serious mistakes. Following on from Ofsted in schools and the research excellence framework – a process originally designed to secure evidence-based distribution of resource which has succumbed to an obsession with institutional competition and ranking – comes a desire to rebalance measurements through the construction of a new set of metrics: the teaching excellence framework.

Not that we are metric free at the moment. Far from it. We already have a quality assurance process which focuses on observing, reflecting and improving our teaching. It is heavily influenced by real teachers with real experience of what works at the “coalface” of education. Even this is already on the edge of interference.

A better question is how free people feel to adapt and improve how they teach their students. Any TEF must not inhibit the individual and their skill and vocation to be a teacher. On the diverse particularity of knowledge, Hayek is right.

The push for further metrics may be well-meaning. As part of the improvement in the quality of the HE product, our masters assert we must make sure that teaching as a vocation is better valued and esteemed. I couldn’t agree more.

But I would assert that this improvement will happen only if esteem for teachers is so great that we ask them how to improve things. We really must start with teachers and students when we think about how real improvements can be made.

The very best teachers are always looking to adapt and change what they do to respond to their students’ needs. Measurement, as scientists know, can also skew results. The last thing we need is some narrowly construed measure of excellence or student “outcomes” that ignore all the richness of our lives.

There are limits to measurement as a means of ensuring improvement.

How do we improve the standard of parenting in the UK, for example? Would we bring in a parenting excellence framework and use it to construct a guide to the best parents? Children could then decide who they want as a parent on the basis of the published guide, and take out a loan to pay for the parenting service.

This is clearly daft. But why? First there is no choice in who you get as a parent. Then there is no authority over parents, excepting abuse and extremes in law (always a bad motive for wider application). But why is that? We see some awful “outputs”.

The answer is that we know that the state can never know as much about a child and how they are nurtured as a parent does, so we back off.

So why would we feel we can know more than a teacher does about how to teach and how to improve teaching. Hayek is right. Despite the temptation to control, government must restrain its desire to improve the world by the flawed mechanism of consumer choice.

Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship.

We certainly cannot ignore the deep-seated wishes of parents to give the best possible care for their children. On that I agree.

So let’s explain to our students and their parents that they will not be best served by league tables that smother the knowledge and creativity of their teachers, or which skew their education. They need something better than teaching by regulation. Let’s defend this academic freedom, not for the sake of academia but for the sake of future generations of students.

Sir Keith Burnett is the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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Reader's comments (4)

Great piece -really refreshing. "To provide information for consumer choice, a higher authority constructs measures of what is 'good'. And in defining good, the ruler will inevitably use those indicators which can be most easily collated en masse and measured, dumping most of the knowledge and skills of individuals in the ditch." Do you mean like this ? http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/finding-new-ways-to-measure-graduate-success/
Well said Sir Keith but, sadly, you are 26 years too late! Back in 1989, teachers had their livelihoods taken away for exercising freedom of speech by criticising the quality of what was then the new GCSE exam. An article in The Guardian at the time noted that had what was happening to teachers in Lewes, East Sussex, been happening in East Germany, there would have been an outcry from liberal intellectuals. Some academics in the House of Lords spoke up but with the notable exception of the late Raphael Samuel at Ruskin College, Oxford, the universities remained silent. I think that most favoured the new 'all-ability' exam and did not care if free speech was suppressed in order to support it. Shame on the universities! The years have passed and, now, the 'enforcers' of intellectual conformity are coming for you. This is price you will pay for your silence in the late 1980s when the process began. In schools the battle has already been lost and the great and good of the teaching profession have been cowed into silence. Good luck!
Very true, these 'metrics' are a new form of propaganda in the workplace and unfortunately Universities and schools as well as lots of other places are equally riven by it, interesting resource here provoked by Surrey University's meteoric rise to 4th best uni: www.datanopropaganda.net
Sorry mispelt site: www.datanotpropaganda.net