Students’ unions in the UK claimed success in recent days after they were able to exclude 12 universities from a national student survey in an attempt to damage the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework. The radical action, they say, was successful. Now, if the Irish government does indeed introduce a similar framework, Irish students’ unions will need to decide what their stance will be on a policy that has divided UK higher education.
There were few other groups who raged against the Teaching Excellence Framework with as much dedication as students. While academics expressed concern and many university staff rolled their eyes at yet another review of their teaching, the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK were mobilising students in an explicit attempt to trash the controversial framework.
The Teaching Excellence Framework became, for many in the sector, a target of scorn and, in recent weeks, the Conservative government in the UK beat a hasty retreat, shelving one of the more contentious proposals that would have seen an institution’s ranking in the framework linked to their ability to raise fees.
It was the link to fee increases that students’ unions, led by NUS, rallied behind. Their opposition to the Teaching Excellence Framework took the form, not of rallies or protests, but of a boycott of the National Student Survey, which would be used to inform some aspect of the excellence framework’s rankings. The intent was to throw some doubt on the results, limiting their effectiveness and highlighting the opposition from the very group the Teaching Excellence Framework was meant to benefit.
Speaking to The University Times, Catherine Canning, the Vice-President for Access and Academic Affairs in Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) said: “By students filling that survey and their results then being used to give an institution gold, it would be seen as us facilitating a raise in fees, which obviously a lot of students weren’t comfortable with.”
Ireland seems far off making a decision on whether to introduce an income-contingent loan scheme, let alone whether fees might be tied to funding. But Canning stressed that opposition to the Teaching Excellence Framework was based on more than simply the mooted link to fee increases. Like many academics and university heads, concern centred around a metric some felt did little to capture teaching in universities. And while Canning couldn’t say for sure whether there would have been the same opposition if the Teaching Excellence Framework wasn’t linked to fees, she thought “having both elements did lead to a campaign being even more forceful”.
Daisy Eyre, the President of Cambridge University Students’ Union, told The University Times that she thought the link to fees was the “trigger”.
“I don’t know if we’d have gone so far to try and boycott TEF [Teaching Excellence Framework] if it wasn’t linked to fee increases, but I think we certainly would have been opposed to it. We are opposed to it, irrespective of fee increases”, she said.
Eyre said she wouldn’t advise automatic opposition to a Teaching Excellence Framework and both her and Canning agreed that it was important to review and measure teaching quality. “It has the potential to introduce a level of accountability, but not when there’s a link to the market and a link to the kinds of factors they’re measuring”, Eyre said.
Canning too stressed there could be positives. “They might find an Irish model has learned from the mistakes, or learned from the problems, in England and is more receptive to what they feel it needs.” OUSU, unlike Cambridge, is yet to decide whether to continue the boycott next year.
Understandably, the response in Ireland so far has been more muted. Academics have expressed exasperation while students’ unions have remained largely quiet on the issue. In part, this is because few details have been released and the suggestion remains little more than that. However, if the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) aren’t yet promising any of the more radical actions employed by their counterparts in the UK, their reaction is still cagey. Speaking to The University Times, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Oisín Hassan, said the union wouldn’t welcome a large-scale review of teaching, but neither would it refuse to engage: “In terms of where this is going, if the government do want to have a consultation on teaching quality, absolutely we’ll respond to that. But we will continue to lobby for funding of the sector.”
In a response shared by other unions, Hassan said the government priority right now should be funding. Elements of the Teaching Excellence Framework, specifically the widely-mocked “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” ranking system, were “nonsensical”, he said. “We’re always talking about best practice in higher education and international best practice. I wouldn’t class TEF [the Teaching Excellence Framework] as international best practice.”
The Teaching Excellence Framework still remains a proposal and, as more details are released, students’ unions across the country will, like UK unions, be forced to take their own stances on it. The warning from the UK is clear: “I would say they shouldn’t welcome it with open arms. The fact that students in the UK boycotted it was a win for students everywhere”, Eyre said.