Universities are gaming a system which measures the wrong things in the first place. But what to replace it with?by Benjamin Sladden / July 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
Picture the scenes last month in the offices of senior university administrators up and down the country. Tense minutes of refreshing pages and gazing into screens, staring back at their reflections and seeing their own faces set with anticipation. “What will it be? Gold, silver, or bronze?”
The results of the Teaching Excellence Framework—ostensibly a means of evaluating the quality of teaching in higher education—were being keenly awaited.
And then, as the emails came through and mobiles vibrated, the reality was with us. That morning, students at my university—Durham—all received the same dismayed email about the apparently inadequate “Silver” ranking. “We plan to appeal,” it read.
The government had legitimate reasons for introducing the TEF back in 2015, when plans for it were included in a higher education green paper. Research-intensive institutions—including most Russell Group universities—are notorious for their tunnel-vision approach to research and this is alleged to have led to a neglect of teaching. The TEF should, in theory, have addressed this. There is another rationale behind an evaluation of teaching standards. Students today are set to leave university with debts of over £50,000 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This has encouraged students to ask whether they are getting value for money from their courses, and so a measure designed to assess that makes sense—or so the theory runs.
The TEF has had some positive effects. For starters, it has given due credit to many post-1992 universities: former polytechnics that have over the years focused attention on teaching and consequently achieved the vaunted Gold status. Coventry and De Montfort, for example. Simultaneously, it has signalled to prestigious institutions, such as the London School of Economics—which achieved Bronze—that more focus on teaching is paramount. So in one sense, it is subverting higher education’s outdated hierarchy.
But speak to the experts and its shortcomings quickly become apparent. After chatting to academics opposed to the TEF, as well as some in favour of it, I discovered just how flawed this tool really is.
Measuring the wrong things
For starters, the metrics it rests on are flawed. One example is the controversial National Student Survey, which attempts to evaluate “student experience.” Even university leaders who have come out in support of the TEF as a whole have criticised the survey as a means of evaluating…