Jo Johnson – First Speech

Our new universities minister has broken cover and delivered his first speech about higher education, entitled “Teaching at the Heart of the System” to UUK this week.

Here’s the edited highlights:

On helping students to make informed choices:

we can now start to assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Education (DfE) education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits data.

We will be able to see which institutions and subjects provide the greatest financial benefits to students, and reflect this back to potential applicants.

On value for money:

While independent learning is vital, universities must get used to providing clearer information about how many hours students will spend in lectures, seminars and tutorials, and who will deliver the teaching.

Indeed the Competition and Markets Authority have advised higher education providers that information should be available to prospective students to meet the requirements of consumer law.

I’ve been rewriting module handbook templates recently for one of our faculties, with a focus on managing student expectations, and clealry identifying how we deliver courses, how much independent learning is expected, and crucially, what we expect our students to do through independent study.

On employability:

Last year’s CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey suggested that 47% of employers felt universities should do more to help students become job-ready.

Government, business and the university sector need to come together to address this mismatch between supply and demand in the graduate labour market.

Businesses should not just be seen as customers of universities, recruiting the graduates they educate or buying research expertise, but as active partners.

Although this seems to reinforce the narrative that universities are just in the business of providing work ready employees, we do recognise the importance of developing employability skills, hence our recent Learning and Teaching Conference that focused on this very topic.

The big announcement though is this one:

There must be recognition of excellent teaching – and clear incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.

Some rebalancing of the pull between teaching and research is undoubtedly required.

It is striking that while we have a set of measures to reward high quality research, backed by substantial funding (the Research Excellence Framework), there is nothing equivalent to drive up standards in teaching.

That is why my priority as Universities Minister will be to make sure students get the teaching they deserve and employers get graduates with the skills they need by introducing the Teaching Excellence Framework we promised in our manifesto.

While no one would argue that we shouldn’t have excellent teaching, the difficulty here will be in finding a way of assessing excellence without becoming overly prescriptive or burdensome (REF anyone?), although the minister does say that “any external review must be proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic”. Interestingly, there is a hint of a future role for QAA in developing the framework (just as they may be losing the remit of institutional quality assurance).

On good degrees, Johnson notes the rise in the number of 1sts and 2(i)s being awarded, saying:

To the extent this expansion in the number of firsts and 2:1s is to do with rising levels of attainment and hard work, I applaud it.

But I suspect I am not alone in worrying that less benign forces are at work with the potential to damage the UK higher education brand.

On the face of it, the facts are certainly startling.

There has been a 300% increase in the percentage of firsts since the 1990s

Maybe the less benign forces come from the impact of league tables and the need to succeed in these to maintain institutional success? Alternativley, maybe universities have recognised how they can improve student attainment and success through the right kinds of interventions?

The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework will be expected to tackle degree classification inflation ( assuming that this does of course exist)

So far the speech has been cautious welcomed (TEF will be the biggest concern) with UUK saying:

Providing a high-quality, world-leading experience for all students is central to what our universities do, and they are always seeking to improve what they offer to students. We will be considering carefully how a new Teaching Excellence Framework can best add value to all students, whatever their choice of subject or university, and whatever their background and aspirations. The challenge is how to construct a single Framework that can effectively respond to that tremendous diversity. Universities UK will be contributing to the consultation process in the coming months

And from million+:

Professor Michael Gunn, chair of the university think-tank million+ and Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University said:

“Universities are engaged in high quality teaching and research but too often teaching has played second fiddle in discussions about the value and contribution of higher education to society and the economy.

“We warmly welcome Jo Johnson’s recognition that the student body is talented and diverse in background, age, mode of study and pre-entry qualifications.

“His commitment to work with employers to highlight shared responsibilities for graduate employability also opens up the potential to improve recruitment practices in ways that would benefit many students.

“The Minster has undoubtedly set a number of challenges and we welcome his commitment to consult widely and the opportunity to explore ways to value the excellent teaching and support for learning in universities.”

There will be a Green Paper in the autumn, so something else (as well as the HEFCE consultation on QA) for policy wonks to get excited about.