Why universities will have to pay more attention to the quality of their teaching

Rewarding the best teaching. University of Central Arkansas, CC BY-NC-ND

The Conservative government is moving fast to fulfil its manifesto pledge to recognise those universities that offer the highest quality teaching. In July, the higher education minister Jo Johnson proposed that a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would be created to sit alongside the existing system that recognises research excellence at universities.

In a speech at the Universities UK annual conference on September 9, Johnson said:

This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system.

Ongoing consultations on the way the TEF will be delivered will lead the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to publish a green paper this autumn and decision-making on the framework as early as next spring. This short timeframe means the TEF can’t spend long on the drawing board in Whitehall before it is implemented.

Giving students the choice

As well as driving up the quality of teaching and enhancing its status within the university, a main driver of the TEF is to provide future undergraduate applicants with better information to help them make a decision on what and where to study. This is part of a Conservative party view of higher education policy where it is the role of government to foster more market-like characteristics in the system of undergraduate education.

Informing their choices. Students via Andresr/www.shutterstock.com

This involves ensuring that student consumers have information to make an informed choice. The government argues that we need to know where teaching excellence is, because we need to be able tell potential students where they can find it, and they will make decisions about where to study accordingly.

To identify teaching excellence requires not just defining it, but also finding a way to measure it. Within the TEF, teaching refers to the whole “teaching function” of the university, encompassing the wider undergraduate education experience. A bundle of performance indicators focused on the outcomes of higher education will have to be selected to capture and convey teaching excellence. These could include contact time, staff-student ratios and student satisfaction. Whatever measures are used, critics will point to the problems of reducing down a higher education learning experience to a couple of indicators or metrics.

Creating a TEF to meet the ministers requirements, particularly in such a short space of time, will be challenging and there are a range of potential policy pitfalls. The minister has said he wants the TEF to be “proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic”. However, a light-touch system may not produce sufficient robust information for applicants. And the burden for academics of even a light-touch system will be high, as universities are likely to make preparing for the TEF a priority to ensure they do well.

Raising fees

The stakes for universities will be high. If the TEF works as intended it will influence student demand. But there are also wider consequences for reputations and the TEF data will be crunched and used in league tables that determine university rankings.

However, the implications of the TEF go further than this. In his July budget the chancellor, George Osborne, announced that TEF scores should be used to determine which universities would be allowed to raise their undergraduate fees above the current £9,000 cap in line with inflation. Teaching excellence then featured in the governments productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations, also published in July, which reaffirmed the commitment to link TEF results to future fee increases as early as 2017.

My understanding, from conversations I’ve had as part of my ongoing research on the TEF, is that it’s likely that from the 2017-18 academic year, only a small number of universities – those with the best results in the TEF – would be allowed to adjust their fees upwards in line with inflation. The exact number of universities or courses will be decided nearer the time.

This may produce some unforeseen consequences as higher education policy would be entering uncharted waters. The universities which may perform best in an evaluation of teaching may not be the same as those established players that always perform best in evaluations of research, such as the Research Excellence Framework. Not letting established research universities raise their undergraduate fees, while other universities do, could be politically very difficult for the universities minister of the day.

The TEF may be used in other ways too. Speaking to Universities UK in September, Johnson indicated that the TEF could play a possible role in rewarding universities that succeed in graduating more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is linked to a government target to increase the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 20% by 2020 and similar targets for them to graduate and enter work.

The politics of the TEF – to have a performance measure for teaching and to link success in this to any tuition fee rises – are now settling into place. This creates the immediate policy challenge of deciding what teaching excellence actually is and how to measure it: no small undertaking.