Higher education in the UK, and in England in particular, has undergone more than two decades of continuous reform, in its governance, structures, funding and quality assurance mechanisms. Among these reforms has been the imposition of research assessment as a mechanism for distributing research funds, which has acted as a huge and successful incentive to improve the quality of research. The UK, on many measures, punches far above its weight in terms of research.
One of the consequences has been that research is prioritised, increasingly at the expense of teaching, and there is objective evidence to suggest that the education of students has suffered. The Higher Education Policy Institute Academic Experience Survey, conducted over more than 10 years, has consistently shown that less is demanded of undergraduate students than in other countries: academics are too motivated, and are highly encouraged by their universities, to focus on research. The most recent reform imposed by the government, and actually enshrined in the most recent Higher Education Act, is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a national process for the evaluation of the quality of teaching intended to mirror and counterbalance the Research Excellence Framework.
The desire to provide a counterweight to research is welcome. The problem lies in identifying robust and accepted measures for evaluating the quality of education and also rewarding it. In research there are measures that are more or less internationally accepted as indicators of quality and it is generally accepted that it is reasonable to provide financial rewards to some and not others. Indeed, it is arguably in the national interest to allocate scarce research funding selectively. This is not the case with teaching. Evaluating teaching quality is notoriously difficult. Only proxies are available, all of which are contested, and many argue that the only outcomes of teaching that are true indicators of its quality are the outcomes themselves. As for rewards, unlike with research, there are serious ethical issues in providing financial rewards to those who provide excellent teaching and denying them to those who do not. A student attending an institution that is already deemed not to be excellent will have a worse student to staff ratio, fewer books in the library and so on.
Evaluating teaching quality is notoriously difficult. Only proxies are available, all of which are contested, and many argue that the only outcomes of teaching that are true indicators of its quality are the outcomes themselves.
The TEF has just completed its first cycle. The assessments were based on a mixture of objective metrics and the judgement of a panel, required to assess self-evaluations prepared by each institution. There are six metrics: three based on student satisfaction (from the UK Student Satisfaction Survey), one based on dropout rates and two based on the employment record of graduates.
These are relatively crude, and are inevitably so, given the paucity of relevant data. But the government has had the good sense to moderate the raw metrics with contextual data that take into account the nature of an institution’s students (their previous educational attainment, etc), as well as its subject mix.
The reward for excellence is that universities might be allowed to increase fees by a small amount. This is yet to be decided and it is, in itself, hardly a major financial incentive and, arguably, a bizarre reward for students attending “excellent” institutions who will then find that they are required to pay higher fees. But the main reward, given that esteem is a strong motivator in higher education and given the highly competitive market within which institutions operate, is that they have been placed in one of three categories: gold, silver and bronze. This is entirely in keeping with the strong market orientation of the UK government and its reforms. In a marketplace, “consumers” require information and this is intended to provide easily accessible information about the quality of the different “products”. It should be noted, in passing, that the assessments are provided at institution, not subject level, which makes it doubtful whether they provide useful information to prospective students.
The results of the first TEF exercise were announced in June. 45 institutions were deemed gold, 67 silver and 25 bronze. There were some surprises. Three Russell Group universities, the self-appointed elite, were deemed bronze, with only eight gold, while a number of further education colleges were classed as gold. The response has been predictable. Those previously critical of this methodology that did well have been silent, while those that did badly have been vocal in their criticisms. Those doing badly are concerned, not so much about the possible direct financial consequences, which are trivial and, as yet, uncertain, but about the impact on their reputation and their market position and, therefore, on recruitment. Beyond the impact on individual institutions, a major concern is the damage that may be done to the reputation of the entire English higher education system, arising from the fact that the majority of institutions may be construed not to be excellent.
The response has been predictable. Those previously critical of this methodology that did well have been silent, while those that did badly have been vocal in their criticisms.
What lessons are there for Ireland in all of this? With the cuts in per capita funding over the last decade, and a student-to-staff ratio that has deteriorated further and is now higher than in almost any other country in the developed world, there is concern that the quality of education has suffered, particularly in light of the improvements in research performance, although now, admittedly, stalled. Thus, a focus on education would not be a bad thing.
The focus on teaching introduced in England by the TEF is admirable and a start has to be made somewhere. Some believe that the reputational risk of being deemed as bronze will be so potentially damaging that all institutions will feel obliged to up their game. That is a risky approach, but may be the case as of yet. It remains to be seen what damage is done and what the response will be.
And finally, do not use financial rewards and penalties that will damage the education of the most vulnerable.
If Ireland were to consider such an approach, the problem, as it is elsewhere, will be to find appropriate mechanisms for encouraging the required focus on teaching. The English approach of providing “information”, and allowing the market to do the rest, is born of a particular ideological approach that few other countries share. The English experience also shows that identifying indicators that objectively provide information about teaching quality is highly problematic, as is the provision of financial rewards.
The main lessons from the English experience are cautionary. Firstly, do not use doubtful metrics to assess teaching quality, as you risk undermining the entire enterprise. Secondly, do not impose from without, but rather encourage improvement from within. And finally, do not use financial rewards and penalties that will damage the education of the most vulnerable.
The English experience also shows that if universities do not, themselves and of their own accord, focus on the improvement of teaching quality, as the great majority are motivated to do anyway, and demonstrate that they are doing so, then unpalatable measures are likely to be imposed from outside.