Scientific Education


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2015-10-20 post date.

Universities don’t need a regulatory big stick to drive better teaching

Universities don’t need a regulatory big stick to drive better teaching

Suppose the government declares that a market needs some new regulation. What’s an Education Guardian reader to think? Congratulate the Conservative cabinet for accepting that the free market, left to itself, sinks into a moral morass? Oppose the proposals on the grounds that Conservative governments are there to be opposed? Or mumble about hypocrisy and move on? The problem is particularly acute when it is Education Guardian readers themselves who are about to be regulated.

I refer, of course, to the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework(TEF). The idea is that only those universities that score highly on teaching excellence will be able to link undergraduate fees to inflation; the rest will remain stuck at today’s £9,000.

When I hear of proposals for new regulation I reach for my copy of the Principles of Better Regulation, set out by the late and largely unlamented Better Regulation Task Force. Before regulating, you must identify the risk the regulation is intended to reduce, and then propose only regulations that will actually work, at proportionate cost and effort.
What, then, is the risk? It is alleged that universities are now so focused on research that teaching is neglected and standards are scandalous. And what is the evidence? Student satisfaction in the UK is measured by the National Student Survey(NSS). True, about half the universities in the country are beating themselves up about their results. But they are looking primarily at league table positions, and for every winner there must be a loser.
But in absolute terms how do we do? The most recent survey included 160 UK universities. The lowest score for overall student satisfaction was 74%, with the great majority hitting 85% or more. This is a remarkable success story. Is there another commercial or public sector in the UK in which even the worst performer does so well? What, for example, is the satisfaction rate with the government? According to Ipsos Mori it hasn’t hit even a measly 50% since 2001.
Well, perhaps students are voting with their feet and leaving the UK. When tuition fees were introduced it was predicted students would flock to continental Europe, where they could receive a high-quality education at low cost, and EU students would abandon us. It is hard to know how many UK students are taking their degrees elsewhere in Europe, but it is generally believed to be in the low thousands, while more than 125,000 EU students study for degrees in the UK. The market signals are encouraging.
Yet despite all this, the TEF is on its way. How will it work? One possibility is that it will reuse some part of the NSS, using student satisfaction to judge the quality of the teaching provision. Not a fantastic idea. First, it is ancient wisdom that improvements in quality are not always experienced as improvements in satisfaction. The better things get, the more likely you are to be picky about remaining imperfections. Consider your first mobile phone and the one you have now.
Which is higher quality?
Which would have scored higher on a satisfaction survey at the time?
Some departments that have increased contact hours and returned essays more promptly have, to their horror, seen student satisfaction fall. But more critically, if fee levels are linked to expressed student satisfaction then it is obvious what the next student campaign will be. Give your university a low score and its fees will be frozen. Power to the people!

So if surveys are a non-starter, then what? Send inspectors to classes? All classes? One per cent? Remember, there are 160 institutions in the NSS, most with hundreds, maybe thousands, of degree programmes. Administration costs would be mind-boggling, and would have to found from elsewhere in the higher education budget. The financial benefits of inflation-linking fees will be trivial by comparison.
I would not argue that teaching at universities is beyond criticism. In my own teaching, each year I introduce what I hope are improvements and I don’t think I am alone. But would a TEF intensify progress – or be an expensive distraction? Perhaps, instead, we should see if a stable policy environment for a few years would allow the miracle of market forces to drive up teaching quality.
Jonathan Wolff is professor of philosophy and dean of arts and humanities at University College London