The balance between teaching and research in the government’s proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework

What is the problem to which TEF, and the government’s proposed reforms more generally, are the solution?

Falling levels of student satisfaction? UUK figures show that students appear to be increasingly ‘satisfied’ with their university experience. Satisfaction levels of around 80% in 2005 have steadily increased to 84% in 2012, 85% in 2013 and 86% in the most recent figures for 2014.[1] Is it about a decline in research quality or impact? Again, UUK point out that while the UK has just over 4% of the world’s researchers, it has 11.6% of citations and is the leading country for field-weighted citation impact.[2] Is it about falling participation rates? We have seen a 26.5% increase in the numbers of full-time first degree students and a 41.1% increase in postgraduate research students in the last ten years. The total number of students studying at HE institutions has grown by 2.8%, to some 2.3 million people, in the ten years up to 2014.[3] Is it the result of falling rates of graduate employment? Hardly given that graduate employment of 87% is the healthiest it has been since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008 with the highest annual median salaries on record.[4] Perhaps it is because universities are bastions of inefficiency except that UUK estimates that British universities delivered £2.38 billion of efficiency savings between 2005-6 and 2013-14.[5] (UUK 2015: 39). So even using the government’s own preferred criteria of reliable metrics and ‘hard’ data, it is not clear what the central problem is with higher education in the UK.

We believe that the proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework are at the heart of the green paper and that they misinterpret not simply what should be understood as ‘good teaching’ but also the relationship between teaching and research.

Although the incentivisation of teaching through TEF might be understood as an attempt to ensure that institutions do not prioritise research at the expense of teaching, the likely outcome of the TEF could be exactly the opposite. i.e. at a time of decreasing funding for research through the dual support mechanism, the unintended consequences of the TEF may be the prioritisation of teaching at the expense of research. In a climate where research is worth less and less to institutions in simple monetary terms, the green paper proposals will likely introduce the drive towards scoring more highly on the TEF as a strong priority in institutional life. It is important that higher education institutions do not lose sight of the holistic picture of how research and teaching are interdependent. There is high quality teaching at an institution like Goldsmiths because it is research-led and informed by the cutting edge knowledge production in the process of development.

In terms of any ‘productivity’ and/or the health of the UK economy it is clear that the creative economy is key – and it is what the UK excels at. British art and culture is recognised internationally – and exported all over the world. The green paper threatens the kind of educational ethos that allows this kind of ‘bottom-up’ culture to emerge and develop by requiring institutions to gear their operations towards producing short-term measurable gains which will be captured by the TEF metrics e.g. immediate and preferably highly-paid employment upon graduation. This militates against risk-taking and start-up culture, the lifeblood of a creative, innovative economy, in which it takes time to establish new products, ideas, and ways of working. The TEF metrics are skewed in favour of an idea of education as training rather than a fully rounded liberal education, productive of creative and critical individuals.

Indeed, the TEF is likely to end up measuring not the quality of teaching but rather the reputation of particular educational institutions and their cultural capital. If employment rates are used to measure the ‘quality of outcomes’, this will not be a measure of teaching quality but of institutional prestige and elite networks outside the classroom, further constraining social mobility rather than doing the opposite which is the stated aim of the green paper. This, in turn, reinforces the dominant preoccupation that education and learning is only a matter of what job you get. What is harder to measure is the slow burning impact and value that students often only recognise many years after graduation. Many of us have received letters from students that articulate – sometimes decades later – why what they studied has been valuable to them.

We believe that the metrics outlined in the green paper to evaluate teaching quality are hugely inefficient and that its preference for measures of employability, retention and student satisfaction would add up to only a pale reflection of the actual quality of teaching delivered. The green paper promises that the TEF ‘should change providers’ behaviour’ (p. 19). That is true but it can work both ways and we believe that these very limited metrics could actually be counter-productive in generating routinised and risk-averse forms of teaching. This is precisely the opposite of what employers want: critical and independent graduates who have been taught to use initiative and creativity in problem-solving.

The current proposals for TEF are short-sighted even in their own terms because they will reproduce some of the bureaucratic and costly mechanisms associated with the Research Excellence Framework. Furthermore, it is far from clear how big a financial incentive the TEF would be. TEF scores at the highest levels will trigger an inflation-linked increase but, given how low CPI is running at the moment, this is hardly likely to generate huge amounts of enthusiasm in university finance departments. In fact, we agree with Andrew McGettigan who has suggested that such a poor incentive could backfire on the prospects of delivering high quality education. ‘If the rewards from TEF are insufficient then universities are more likely to increase income through over-recruitment than improving the student experience.’[6]

In the light of genuine concerns about the value of the REF and the launch of the Stern Review on the future of the REF, it is curious that only a few pages of the green paper are wholly devoted to research. On the other hand, the idea of research is invoked throughout the document as being somehow detrimental to both the quality and resourcing of teaching as if they are both engaged in a zero sum game. For example, we read that:

‘not all universities assign teaching the same significance that they give research’ (p. 12)
‘More needs to be done to ensure that teaching is valued as much as research’ (p. 18)
‘Our aim is to build a culture where it is recognized that teaching has equal status with research’ (p. 18) Research ‘too often’…’skews activity away from teaching’ (p. 20) ‘There is evidence to suggest “strong orientations towards research often reveal a weak emphasis on teaching and vice-versa”’ (p. 20).

We believe that this presents a false polarisation between teaching and research that ought to be challenged. We need more clarification from government about what they understand as ‘good teaching’ and need to develop a far more sophisticated understanding of the connections between teaching and research. Bill Rammell, a former education minister, describes the relationship between teaching and research as follows:

We want all students to access the benefits exposure to teaching informed by research can bring…. This will take many forms including pure and applied research that feeds curriculum development; but also research and development that tackle the challenging questions facing professional business, regional and local employers now and in the future. We’re doing this because we believe an understanding of the research process – asking the right questions in the right way; conducting experiments; and collating and evaluating information – must be a key part of any undergraduate curriculum.[7]

Indeed doing research, and appreciating what makes for good research, is a key part of ensuring students understand how knowledge is created.

As representatives of university staff, we are also deeply concerned about the proposed constitutional reforms and the possibility of being able to change governance arrangements. Although universities’ constitutions are often complex, they have been instituted both to protect academic freedom and to prevent short-termism in employment patterns as well as excessive managerialism in institutional practices. University statutes ensure that due process is followed such that, for example, members of staff who research or teach in contentious areas are not victimised; they ensure that members of staff are represented on decision-making bodies; they seek to ensure fairness and equality in employment practice. Enabling such provisions to be eroded easily will dissipate some of the very things that make universities engaging and appealing places to work. Take this away and some of the very best teachers will leave. If structures of governance are to change then they should be done so in a manner than seeks better inclusivity, more representation, more accountability, more equality and increasing fairness such that our universities and their management can fully reflect UK society in all its diversity.

Our final points concern those issues that have been largely neglected in the green paper.

There is one single reference in over 100 pages to increased student debt – and no mention of the average debt, currently expected to be approximately £44,000 for graduates.[8] Similarly, there is no mention of the likely impact on poorer students of the abolition of student maintenance grants in September 2016.

There is not a single reference to citizenship in contrast to the many on ‘consumer protection’.

There is literally nothing about part-time students – perhaps because by the time the proposals are enacted, there would be relatively small numbers of part-time students left. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, number of part-time students have declined from 258,000 in 2010/11 to 116,00 in 2015[9] – a drop of more than 50% in four years – making a mockery of government claims to be committed to making a university education available to all those who want one.

It fails to even consider any potential problems in the existing regulation of the ‘alternative providers’ whose numbers have increased tenfold in the last five years (p. 54). Yet, these are the same private operators who pocket around £700 million of public money without providing the data that is required of the rest of the sector on how many students from these private colleges have actually earned an award.[10] McGettigan rightly describes this as the emergence of a ‘subprime undergraduate sector’.

Finally, the green paper fails to acknowledge the simple fact that, if there are problems inside British higher education – with problems concerning widening participation, institutional uncertainty, increased student debt, higher staff/student ratios, a more instrumental approach to teaching and research – they may be related to the fact that the UK spends less money on higher education than the vast majority of OECD countries: 0.88% of GDP in contrast to the average of 1.13%.[11] (UUK 2014a: 27). Surely, this is the central question that any future legislation on higher education should commit itself to redressing.

[1] Universities UK (2014) Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education. London: Universities UK, p. 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Universities UK (2015) Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education. London: Universities UK, p. 8, 11.

[4] Universities UK (2015) ‘Graduates, Skills and Jobs’ report, 9 December. p.2.

[5] Universities UK (2015) Patterns and Trends, p. 39.

[6] Andrew McGettigan (2015) ’10 things you might have missed about the Green Paper’, WonkHE, 6 November.

[7] Bill Rammell (2006) ‘Innovations: exploring research-based learning’, speech at the University of Warwick, 25 October.

[8] Katherine Sellgren (2014) ‘Students could be paying loans into their 50s – report’, BBC News Online, 10 April.

[9] BBC News Online, ‘Warning over falling number of part-time students’, 29 October.

[10] Andrew McGettigan (2015) ‘The accelerated level playing field’, WonkHE, 6 November.

[11] Universities UK (2014) Patterns and Trends, p. 27.

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