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As they compete to lay on the best student experience, universities mustn’t forget the academic one too

Don’t leave university without acquiring some knowledge. Student in library via Ditty_about_summer/

The proposal for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) announced by universities and science minister Jo Johnson in early July that would recognise “excellent teaching” and “make good teaching better” has been met with consternation among some in the higher education sector. Once the TEF is introduced, the government has indicated it might allow the highest-scoring institutions to raise tuition fees in line with inflation.

But other universities may have to do more with less. Johnson will be aware of the financial realities that has just led his department to ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to make £150m savings from university teaching budgets over the next two academic years. HEFCE chief executive Madeleine Atkins says that, despite the cuts, it will keep trying to support “excellence in research, learning and teaching and a high-quality student experience”.

What is distinctive and unique about the 21st-century university is just this focus on the student experience. Research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa on “academically adrift” students has highlighted the shift within institutions’ priorities away from academic matters towards a concern with the personal, moral and social lives of students.

A marker of the change that has occurred is the competition between institutions to be seen as the “best university for student experience”. This has been reinforced through the proliferation of student satisfaction surveys across university life.

Safety, not experimentation

It is part of a wider, profound change within universities which really began in the late 1990s and has gradually come to regulate spontaneous student activities, often with a desire to ensure that they are “responsible” and take place within “safe spaces”. Before then, students took more risks and were unashamedly independent. If they made mistakes, they dealt with them themselves as part of growing up and wanted minimal or no help from the university. Students may still do some of these things but the atmosphere has changed: the emphasis is now on student safety rather than experimentation.

This infantilised conception of students has also spread to some students unions. Alongside banning many things or groups they feel might offend or upset students, they also organise safe and protective activities for students in parallel with the university bureaucracies. As a result, it has become hard to separate student unions from university management: neither of them treat students as adults.

Students unions, like university managers, often award certificates to the “most inspirational” lecturer and monitor the quality of “feedback” in order to improve the student experience.

Content vs process

This is the context in which the TEF will be introduced and it is likely to strengthen the shift towards making university teaching mere edutainment.

There are some units and centres aimed at developing learning in universities who believe in the importance of innovative pedagogues and who will probably embrace the TEF. But they are beleagured: they often have a hard time influencing the practices of most lecturers who are, rightly in my view, more interested in the content than the process of teaching.

It doesn’t matter how you teach, the content is the same. ABBYDOG/

For all the possible structural similarities between the TEF and the bureaucratic and stultifying process for measuring research excellence called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), there is little comparison to be made between the two. The REF has gone some way into dividing universities and their academics into those institutions which are research-active and those which are relatively inactive. The TEF will go further and could consolidate the reorientation of universities around students, rather than knowledge.

The TEF won’t seem like a dangerous idea. It will be presented by universities as a rich opportunity to experiment with different ways of teaching. And as a real opportunity for student-centred institutions to celebrate their successes in teaching. They will want to do this in ways that are far more pedagogically radical and innovative than what they view as the old-fashioned, elitist and undemocratic traditions of lecturing and Oxford-style tutorials.

But despite the fact that students will be treated as if they were hapless and hopeless and in need of flashier forms of teaching, students are no different than they used to be. Some may be turned off by this new trend and walk away. But tragically, many will only see the effects of this move towards “edutainment” much later, when they are what Arum and Roksa call “adults adrift”: when the damage is done and they discover that what they needed to develop as autonomous individuals who can be successful in their adult working lives was an “academic experience”.

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