Ranking universities on excellent teaching will be better for everyone

Searching out the best teaching. edbrambley/www.flickr.com, CC BY-SA

The quality of teaching at universities has emerged as one of the key priorities for the new Conservative majority government. In a recent speech to Universities UK, Jo Johnson the new universities minister, said he wanted to see universities in England enhance teaching quality, bear down on grade inflation and achieve parity of esteem between teaching and research.

Driven by a desire to give student consumers better information about where to study based on the excellence of a university’s teaching, his plan is to introduce a long-mooted Teaching Excellence Framework. He said that this:

creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect.

One problem that might hinder Johnson’s chances of succeeding is that, while each of the particular aspirations on his wish list are credible, together they appear somewhat contradictory. For example, take grade inflation – above-trend increases in the numbers of firsts and 2:1s granted by universities in recent years. How much this reflects higher student achievement is unclear. But the elevation of the “student-as-consumer” in the era of £9,000 per year fees and the competitive marketisation of the higher education sector, which Johnson advocates, may bear some responsibility for unwarranted classification hikes.

Universities regard student grade classifications as a metric around which they cannot fall short – or else their reputations or student recruitment suffers. People paying high fees expect to do well and university rankings include this dimension in their calculations.

The US faces similar issues, in part as a result of empowered, fee-paying, student consumers demanding value-for-money as part of an entitlement to a good student experience. Arguably, increased emphasis on the “student experience” – or consumer delight – can take focus away from the rigour traditionally associated with simply teaching the curriculum.

Jo Johnson, the new universities minister. Gareth Fuller / PA Archive

Universities’ preoccupations with ensuring that the high grades they award are “in alignment” with those of similar universities are likely to be reinforced by both the minister’s comments and also recent proposals by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for quality assurance. Both want to shift the focus of debates around quality away from university evaluation onto student outputs – their grades and wages once they leave graduate.

There is less concern with “regulating regulation” – auditing universities’ own procedures by an external bureaucratic entity such as the Quality Assurance Agency – than there is on monitoring standards of student attainment around knowledge and skills.

However, judging institutions in these ways, including those struggling to attract good students, is actually a real incentive for grade inflation – at least in subjects, such as the arts and social sciences, where grades are awarded more as a result of subjective, rather than metric processes.

Don’t put all hope in external examiners

It’s unclear whether the government can regulate these potential market perversities to sustain the reputation of the English higher education system. Johnson (like HEFCE) shows a rather touching faith in a modernised, external examination system for universities as a key instrument to guarantee this. External examiners are set to become professionalised and trained guardians of standards at higher education institutions, helping to damp down any tendencies towards grade inflation.

Yet the notion of a highly trained cadre of external examiners is an oxymoron. External examining is done mostly reluctantly (except for those starting out on their careers as academics), is poorly paid, and undertaken as a professional responsibility mostly with a deep sigh. It only operates at all because the whole rickety affair is so fragmented and loosely disciplined. Tell external examiners that they have to become trained, registered and subject to bureaucratic oversight, and nobody will do it.

One alternative option could be to set up a central examining system so that all papers are assessed at one point by a trained group of examiners – as is done for school exams. This would overcome the somewhat isolated role of the current wandering external examiner and would provide more rigorous comparability.

But universities would hate this and object violently. It would be seen as an assault on their autonomy. Probably it would be better, if a key aim is to keep a handle on grade inflation, to set up a national sampling process. This could entail selections of university exam papers receiving some form of scrutiny outside the university itself by panels of experts – rather like the Research Excellence Framework for research.

Which incentives will work?

The question is then how best can ministers create incentives for universities to drive up teaching quality? The first step is to better understand how it can be improved. Responsibility for improving teaching needs to be owned and taken forward by departmental and course teams. External agencies and particularly institutional managers need to ensure that local teams are working collectively to raise standards. Here the National Student Survey and other feedback instruments are very important by helping to drive these local processes competitively.

Devices that shame universities for bad teaching may be as effective as extra funding that rewards those where teaching is judged to be outstanding. Public rankings of universities based on their teaching quality performance, judged by student attainments, would be an energising force. It would help, too, if there were funding benefits for teams that demonstrate key “learning gains” by their students, measured by comparing the progress students make between starting and concluding a course.

Above all, good teaching quality is encouraged if institutions are transparent about it and discuss it openly. This is far easier with online and digital learning. Here, the fingerprints of teaching and learning quality are increasingly recordable and clear for all to see as students are tracked throughout the learning process. Real-time intervention (including by insisting that assessment marking and feedback are undertaken online by all academic staff) is traceable and helps address persisting student complaints about the long waits to get their results.

If ministers and HEFCE could create incentives for innovation and the spread of good practice in digital learning through competitive funding awards, this would be an important contribution to raised standards. The key is making teaching more transparent, recordable and therefore accountable.

Only in this way will teaching in England’s universities attain “market-like” characteristics similar to the way research is currently funded. We need to reward the best practitioners by allowing them to “cash in” on their teaching expertise by moving to better-rewarded positions in other institutions. Marketisation needs to spread to teaching careers in just the way it has done for researchers.