Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is also a Didcot Town Councillor.
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”, according to Benjamin Franklin. For that reason, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) young adults borrow tens of thousands of pounds to fund a place in Higher Education. Many of them look forward to University life and all that it has to offer, but most are of course, principally motivated by the opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge, thus furthering their employment and earning prospects. I don’t think you can get a much more Conservative philosophy than that.
As we know, this high price tag on learning came about in response to the increasing demand for university places, which was judged to be too expensive for the taxpayer to bear. In response to the increased fees, the Government removed the cap on the numbers of students each institution could recruit, so that the best and most popular Universities could thrive and expand. Along with that came a new focus on the standards in teaching and learning in Higher Education, first mooted by David Willetts. Good. For too long we’ve heard stories of students, sometimes at prestigious institutions, receiving very minimal face-to-face teaching and, if true, for the professional pride of academics at least this must stop.
But joining a university is a bit like joining a gym. No matter how expensive or well equipped it is, you wont get fit just by joining and, if you do go regularly, you still won’t get fit if you mess around and don’t work up a sweat.
Pretty much every lecturer nowadays gets asked: “!hat do I need to know to pass the test?” or “tell me what I need to know to get a 2:1?”, or something along those lines. Academics often find themselves fighting what can feel like a series of rearguard actions to defend intellectual rigour. Students often arrive at University believing that it will be just like school but with more personal freedoms: i.e. lecturers will stand in front of them, tell them what they need to know, they’ll note it down and recite it more or less verbatim a few months later when the exams come around.
That’s not what a university education is meant to be about. Like most universities, the one I work at rightly expects undergraduates to become independent learners who are able to plan study, find, select and evaluate resources, read – it’s not called ‘reading for a degree’ for nothing – and most importantly, to be able to think critically and communicate clearly.
It’s the job of academics to guide students in their development and help polish the skills which recruiters seek, as well as to impart knowledge. But, you may ask, when people are paying, they surely should be provided with whatever they need to pass the course? My response to that is that graduate employers are not interested in whether someone is simply prepared to stump up nine grand a year. I often tell my students “It’s not meant to be easy. If it was, everyone could do it” – and to be fair, they get it. They understand the need to prove that they can ultimately perform some intellectual heavy lifting if they’re to get a good degree, but some do need a gentle reminder every so often.
When, Jo Johnson (Minister of State for Universities and Science) recently wrote a comment piece in the Times (£) titled “University tutors must sharpen up – or else”, the “or else” bit irked me; I know of no colleague who doesn’t care whether students benefit from their teaching. Academics balance their time between three competing duties: teaching, research and administration. More time spent on one activity inevitably means spent less on another. The prioritisation of research success and the income and prestige that it generates is a direct result of the policies of successive Conservative, Labour and Coalition governments – but I won’t bore you with a diatribe on that subject here. Moreover, having been to the same high-profile university as the Minister, I know that he will be only too aware that the best researchers rarely make the best teachers.
Johnson’s article presaged his speech to Universities UK announcing the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s consultation on the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which we were assured will be “proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic” – when I read that, I groaned; when I discussed it with a professorial colleague, he laughed. In an age when politicians tell us that professionals such as doctors, nurses and police officers need to be freed from the burden of excessive paperwork, academics can see a potentially colossal box-ticking exercise looming on the horizon. Furthermore, to conflate, as he did, the decrease in the graduate earnings premium with teaching standards is disingenuous. If the number of graduates increases, and it has, it stands to reason that their ability to command higher pay will decrease correspondingly. I don’t think you need to be especially numerate to figure that one out.
Don’t misunderstand me though; the concept of TEF is fundamentally a good one. In my opinion, done right, not only would it provide prospective students with important information when deciding where to invest their tuition fees, but it could prove to be a great leveller of standards; nobody really buys the idea that first class degrees from universities at opposite ends of the league tables are really of the same value. When assessing graduate applicants for jobs, employers take into account which university they went to – fact.
TEF could have an important role in re-balancing the attitudes of university managers towards the relative values of teaching and research. I would strongly advocate taking care in how its objectives are communicated. If it enshrines the importance of personal development and rigorous independent thought, rather than learning by rote, it could receive widespread support from academia and employers, as well as inform the decisions of young people making what is usually the first significant financial investment of their lives.