CLARKE, Dr Simon

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.

A casual search of Twitter for #HEGreenPaper or #TEF revealed entirely predictable negative responses from academics and students demanding the re-instatement of grants.

As much as it pains me to agree with Peter Mandelson, too many members of my profession are “set in aspic”, or perhaps wish they were.  Most of the proposals contained in Jo Johnson’s new Higher Education Green paper have been mooted for some time and were entirely predictable.

This is a consultative document, but TEF (teaching excellence framework) is going to happen, we should be constructive but also realistic.

From an academic perspective, the Green Paper has two main themes: transparency and standards. Why do it?  Well, the government believes that some universities place more importance on research than on teaching.

They’re quite right, but those institutions most focused on research generally attract the students with the best A-levels and generally produce the most employable graduates. It should also be noted that the emphasis on research is a response to pressure from all governments over the past 25 years.

The transparency question, with regard to value for money, is an interesting one. It’s a fairly novel concept in Higher Education, purely because the large fees paid by students are a relatively new phenomenon.

When students complain to me about the cost of University and how I “got it all for free”, I remind them that far fewer people went to University in the early 1990s and that it was paid for by tax payers, most of whom had not had the privilege of a University education.

Some people argue that too many people go to University nowadays, but whenever I hear that, I’m struck by how they assume it wont be them or their children missing out on the opportunity; critics should reflect on that a bit more carefully.

It’s probably fair comment to say that universities could do more to explain where their fee income goes, but I can guarantee that there will be a large number of students who’ll object vehemently to paying towards anything that they judge doesn’t benefit them immediately and directly.

To risk stating the obvious: when any of us buys goods or services, we’re not just paying for that item, there’s a contribution to be made towards the overheads of running the business and we often contribute towards future investment by that company – a prime example being the railways. Higher education is no different.

The transparency agenda also feeds into the question of teaching standards, particularly with regard to assessment and feedback.

If I were a cynic, I’d be tempted to say that there is sometimes a direct correlation between how satisfied a student is with assessment and feedback and the mark they got. I frequently find myself having to explain that, in line with University policy, marks are awarded solely for attainment and not for effort.

Given this focus on attainment, it seems perfectly fair to me to insist that the standard of teaching offered should match the standards that we require of students. But that prompts the question: what is good teaching?

I’m reminded of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said “I know it when I see it”, when ruling on what constituted pornography. So it goes with many aspect of life; the quality of something is an entirely subjective measure.

Teaching is no different. It comes in many forms and what works well for one cohort of students may not be so effective if delivered to another.

Students enter different universities having performed differently at school and this needs to be reflected in how they’re taught.  The intense and sometimes mortifying Oxbridge tutorials system would not be appropriate for many undergraduates; yet the stronger ones flourish.

It simply isn’t possible to formulate what makes a good teaching experience for everyone.

Johnson quite rightly also draws attention to the alarming phenomenon of degree inflation and the reputational risk that it poses to UK higher education.  The government “want[s] to see greater assurance for students and employers that the class of degree awarded by higher education providers is consistent across the sector”.

Well good luck with that!

While it’s an entirely noble aim, consistency across the sector simply isn’t going to happen. Nobody in their right mind would pretend that degrees in the same subject and at the same class, from institutions at opposite ends of the league tables, are equivalent, and the Green Paper does nothing to tackle this problem.

The proposed method of dealing with grade inflation will be for universities to demonstrate that they are addressing such issues internally, “ensuring that hard won degrees hold their value over time”; a classic fudge which will merely lock-in the inconsistencies that already exist.

The crux of this whole issue is the inevitable conflict between teaching duties and research. There are only so many hours in the day and the vast bulk of academics would rather spend time on research; quite simply it’s why they’re there.

When new lecturers are appointed to their first academic post, it’s due of their research profile; unless they’re spectacularly bad at delivering a presentation or openly hostile to teaching duties when interviewed, they are appointed on the back of their research.

Similarly TEF’s cousin, REF (research excellence framework), which ranks research output, is treated by universities as some sort of article of faith.

If their research isn’t judged to be of sufficient quality to be submitted to the REF, an academic’s job is at very serious risk. Whole departments get shut down because of poor REF performance, with little or no regard to their teaching.

The Green Paper mentions putative changes to REF, almost in passing, but unless very serious efforts are made to give greater parity of esteem to teaching and research, and crucially to force University managers to accept them, significant changes to teaching output simply won’t happen.

The government’s desire to improve teaching within our universities is an admirable one.  After all, the taxpayer supports the student loan book, which underpins the finances of all but a small handful of private institutions.

However unless great care is taken, I think the proposals will miss what could be a golden opportunity to reward and promote the best and most innovative teaching in the sector.

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