Wonk’s Delight

And so the waiting is over. Friday finally saw the long awaited release of one the  most anticipated artifacts of 2016. Twitter was inundated with commentary, and major newspapers rushed to add reports to their online editions as the new John Lewis Christmas advert became available.

In other news, the government published its green paper – “Fulfilling out Potential – Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”.

Much of the content of this was trailed previously in speeches by Jo Johnson, and last week on the Conservative Home website. Plenty of  excellent commentary has already been provided through WonkHE and I’d encourage my colleagues  to read these as well as the paper itself.

Over on WonkHE I’d recommend the following:

David Kernohan writes on the  first TEF’sassessment

Martin McQuillan also focuses on TEF, and considers that universities brought TEF upon themsleves

Andrew McGettigan crucially shows ten things you might miss on a first reading

And in the Times Higher, Jo Williams questions the impact that TEF will have on how universities look at student satisfaction, and how this could affect academic freedoms.

There are some key points for us all to know about the contents of the Green Paper, specifically around the emerging detail of the Teaching Excellence Framework, but also the longer term ambitions for HE in this country. I’ve previously suggested in this blog that the changes are intensely political – they are about creating a deregulatory regime (although that doesn’t quite tally with the regulation that TEF might create), with opening up the “market” further to new entrants, and to allow more rapid shifts in market share. This seems to be driven by a belief that teaching in universities is poor (with little evidence of this) and that institutions need to be able to show better value for money to consumers. The assumption clearly is that HE does work as a market – whereas many including me, would argue that it is not a traditional market, that students are not passive consumers, that they should be active participants in creating their learning, and that universities themselves have created this dumbed down “the customer is right” approach.

Notable in the document is an emphasis on full time undergraduate students Part time barely gets a mention, and although there are nods of acknowledgement occasionally that the sector is more complex than FTUG, this barely affects proposals

Let’s look at the key proposals, on TEF in particular, and what they will mean for us in the short and medium term, remembering that this paper is now open for consultation.

Part A covers teaching excellence, quality and social mobility, and this is probably the section of most interest to most university teaching staff.

Excellence is defined in the paper as:

There is no one broadly accepted definition of “teaching excellence”. In practice it has many interpretations and there are likely to be different ways of measuring it. The Government does not intend to stifle innovation in the sector or restrict institutions’ freedom to choose what is in the best interests of their students. But we do think there is a need to provide greater clarity about what we are looking for and how we intend to measure it in relation to the TEF. Our thinking has been informed by the following principles:
• excellence must incorporate and reflect the diversity of the sector, disciplines and missions – not all students will achieve their best within the same model of teaching;
• excellence is the sum of many factors – focussing on metrics gives an overview, but not the whole picture;
• perceptions of excellence vary between students, institutions and employers;
• excellence is not something achieved easily or without focus, time, challenge and change.

Ultimately there will be different levels of teaching excellence – once the metrics and process have been decided –  however, in the first year, any institution that has a currently satisfactory QA review will qualify for level 1 TEF.

In the short term then, we, along wth nearly everyone else, would “pass” the TEF.

Later there will be up to 4 levels of TEF, and institutions will apply for the various levels. This will be done either on a rolling process or when unis decide that they are ready to apply for a higher level. This is where is starts to be contentious and competitive

A key driver of TEF is to link fees to teaching quality, and so in future the fee cap will likely be set by government for each of the different levels created, so that fees can once again be seen as a differentiator – the current system has led to nearly all traditional providers charging the maximum of £9000, so this has not helped generate the anticipated market behaviours. Whether having 4 values of fees will have any more effect remains to be seen.

The paper proposes that the metrics to be used  initially to be: DLHE, NSS and HESA continuation and retention. You might as well read a league table!

However, importantly, the paper recognises the limitations of metrics alone:

“However, we recognise that these metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measures of quality and learning gain and there are issues around how robust they are. To balance this we propose that the TEF assessment will consider institutional evidence, setting out their evidence for their excellent teaching.”

The institutional evidence might look a lot like the self evaluation submissions for quality activities, In addition to this, there is an expectation of using further new common metrics on engagement with study (including teaching intensity) and learning gain.

Degree classifications and grade inflation cited as a concern, with a nudge towards a move to GPA, but without explicitly asking universities to do so. The numbers of good degrees award nationally has risen dramatically over the last 10 years – partly because of good teaching, partly through a different student attitude to study and the need for a higher classification, but maybe partly through gaming the algorithms to gain league table position

On social mobility, the attainment gap between BME and white students is highlighted, as well as the lack of engagement with disadvantaged white males. These are areas that would be expected to be addressed in the TEF – “Work to improve access and success should have close links with the TEF.”

Other key headlines to be aware are:

  • removal of barriers to entry for new providers, including a possible remval of teh minimum numbers of students.
  • creation of an Office for Students – as part of a bonfire of quangos the work of HEFCE and OFFA would move a new OfS. The OfS would be responsible for assessing quality of teaching through TEF
  • proposed  to constitutional arrangements of Higher Education Corporations which will affect us
  • reducing complexity of research funding, although this will be detailed more in the coming Nurse review

So what do we need to do?

Firstly, a lot of people (everyone who works in the university) should read the Green Paper. This is clearly setting out this government’s ambitions for the future of the sector.

Secondly, a robust response to the consultation is needed – where there are sector concerns, for instance over the detail of TEF, we need to echo and articulate those.

We also need to accept that this is coming our way, so we can start preparing in anticipation now.

Ideally, we should be creating systems and processes for capturing information both qualitative and quantitative, as part of our business operating model, so that we don’t have to do this as a separate later exercise, but build it into standard practice (at the same time as remving other less useful and time consuming processes).

Since we know the metrics to be used in the second year, then we can start benchmarking ourselves against other universities using the data sets in Heidi. We can also do the same with the Unistats data

We can start amending our own portfolio performance review tools to reflect the same information but at subject level. This could be considered gaming the system – but we all know that’s one of the contributory factors in winning in the league table game, and this will be no different.

We can set up course monitoring processes such that detailed data and analysis is readily available to support the work we do on supporting students from widening participation and BME backgrounds – we know we work well in this area, but will want quantitative as well as quantitative evidence

We can start to articulate what does make for excellent teaching so that we are ready to develop our institutional qualitative submission – maybe a review of our ongoing course approval and review process can be carried out to start to capture this now.

Overall, a lot of work needs to be done, firstly to understand the devil in the details of the green paper, to identify how to set up processes and practices to deliver the information needed. The agile organisation will be working out how to do this without creating any extra burden, by removing other activities that are no longer necessary, and making sure that academic staff have the space to focus on the most important work – teaching, and scholarship and research that enables them to be excellent teachers

Most importantly though, is the need for us to keep demonstrating that excellence is not easily measured; that education is not just a product for consumption; that higher education is the  opportunity for people to engage in transformational activity which will provide benefits to themselves as individuals, as well as to broader liberal society.