Could universities learn from the TEF’s advocates how better to influence public discourses?

Note: this piece was originally published here on the Sociological Review‘s website. It is co-authored by my Manchester Institution of Education colleagues, Steven Courtney & Ruth McGinity.9Public-Speaking

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is no easy sell. For a sector already awash with audits, metrics and league tables, the prospect of new measurements – especially ones underpinned by a brazenly market-driven ideology – is difficult to embrace. The ways in which the TEF is discursively framed therefore become crucial to its reception, and the strategies used offer a ready case study into how policymakers co-opt, cajole and (if all else fails) coerce their way to implementation. In an age where headlines matter more than procedural detail, and media messaging more than academic buy-in, the success of higher education policy can hinge on how convincingly it is spun. Wittgenstein’s notions of ‘language games’ are becoming as relevant to higher education research as Bourdieu’s theories of class distinction.

That’s not to implJo-Johnsony that the TEF is without any substantive arguments of its own. When the current Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, talks about “rebalancing” teaching and learning, few would argue that the scales are in need of no correction. When one of his predecessors, David Willetts, characterised teaching as “by far the weakest aspect of English higher education,” we grimaced, but we couldn’t deny that it has often been over-shadowed by research imperatives. Indeed, as TEF enthusiasts point out, only 37% of undergraduates now report that their degree represents good value-for-money, down from 53% just four years ago.

But such statistics should be treated with caution. First, because they assume commercial paradigms and implicitly deny any notion of university as a public good; in other words, once value-for-money becomes the currency, what counts is not society’s collective advancement but the individual’s net return on their financial investment. And second, because it’s wholly disingenuous to bash university teaching using value-for-money indicators; many students reporting poor value will be doing so because of the extraordinary hike in fees rather than any deterioration in their learning experience.

The reliance on metrics means that, all too frequently, universities are positioned as either reform averse (far too ivory tower’d to understand what their students want) or greedy and self-interested (seeking to preserve a bloated, over-protected sector from the market’s natural justice). The TEF, by contrast, is framed by its supporters as “strengthen[ing] the position of students and prospective students vis-à-vis these powerful institutions” (Emran Mian, 06.11.15). Jo Johnson goes further, claiming that “students are looking critically at what they get for their investment, and so must we, as a government, on behalf of taxpayers” (01.07.15). The government thus become plucky Davids slaying the Goliaths of an outmoded, authoritarian higher education sector. No matter that the National Union of Students passed a motion in favour of “principled disengagement” from the TEF, and has threatened to sabotage next year’s National Student Survey in protest.

9indexAnti-university discourses are legitimised through mass reiteration: the ingeniously named Office for Students sounds like it will champion and defend learners’ rights; Study UK emerges as a “national representative body for independent providers of higher education”; a methodologically flawed but widely reported survey of staff at independent schools finds they don’t much like the sound of how undergraduates are taught; “too many universities teach pointless degrees that offer nothing to their students,” runs a headline in The Telegraph (Fraser Nelson, 15.04.16). Space rarely opens up to question why one of the economy’s most consistently high-performing sectors (a “world leader, with four universities in the global top ten,” according to the government’s 2016 White Paper) should model itself, both commercially and pedagogically, on a private school system.

The co-opting is relentless, and stressed-out university staff eventually turn on the very undergraduates who should rightly be their allies. “My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me,” writes an anonymous academic in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network (18.12.15). Undergraduates become pawns in a very public game of chess, discursively courted by government and universities alike, but faced with the same unprecedented levels of debt regardless of allegiance.

9banksy-twitter-fight1On the day that the government’s White Paper was published, the Minister busied himself on Twitter, disseminating responses to the document from stakeholders such as the Confederation of British Industry (“it’s good that proposals have taken on board the business view”), the University of Buckingham’s Vice Chancellor (“full marks to the minister for not succumbing to pressure from university traditionalists”) and the editor of Conservative Home (“if more would-be students had better information about future earnings they might not go to University at all”). Some might claim that what’s important is the detail of the policy, not the social media clamour surrounding it. However, as quick-to-tweet ministers probably realise, to own the discourse is to the win the argument.

And so the TEF wheedles its way into the sector, despite the perverse incentive of inflationary fee rises and the likelihood of an already-stratified sector being divided further. The prospect of an “outstanding” rating (rather than merely an “excellent” one) will seduce those institutions best equipped to play the game. And despite Green Paper pledges to “address the ‘industries’ that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours,” similar activities are sure to emerge around the TEF, as numbers are crunched, metrics optimised and self-glorifying statements written.

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Meanwhile, so-called “challenger institutions”, summarily checked, enter the market. Public discourses frame them as high-quality food providers, and question why they must seek permission of their corporate competitors to compete (“akin to Byron Burgers having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant,” Jo Johnson, 09.09.15). Their stakes are small: low start-up costs and minimal regulatory oversight. The bigger gamble is that taken by the UK higher education sector: centuries of hard-won reputational gain wagered on the untested principle that new providers will show a crusty establishment just how HE-level teaching should be done.

If the sector were better able to speak as a united profession, public opinion may be more inclined to lean in its direction. The best way to rebalance research and teaching is probably to obsess less about measuring the former rather than to obsess more about measuring the latter. But greater coordination and discursive agility is required to persuade those outside academia how damaging an unchecked marketisation agenda might ultimately prove. Students need winning over with evidence, not assurances, that their learning is our top priority; the role of research in pedagogy needs defending more stoutly; and the value of higher education to wider society needs articulating more forcefully and more often. Perhaps the sector could learn a thing or two from the TEF’s advocates about how to frame public discourses.

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2013: the year in HE

In 2012, following a near-trebling of student fees in England, recruitment fell by 9%.

However, 2013’s headline is that normal service has now been resumed. Indeed, entry levels are close to a record high.

This is good news for all. That HE brings both individual and societal gains is well established. Rumours persist that participation may even offer the odd cultural benefit, though ‘public good‘ remains a phrase conspicuously absent from most wider discussions of HE.

History will also record 2013 as the year in which the mature student began heading towards extinction. Application rates for those aged 21 or over have fallen 14% since the fees hike, and there’s little real hope of recovery. (Note that the graph below covers only 18-year-old applicants.) Prospects look similarly bleak for would-be UK postgraduates.

EntryRate_4UKCountries

On a more positive note, the 2013 National Student Survey found undergraduates to be happier with their lot than ever before. A blunt instrument though the NSS is, it would be churlish to argue that the ‘student experience’ hasn’t improved since its launch in 2005. 85% of graduating students are satisfied with their degree programme.

With universities now all REF‘d out, the pendulum is likely to swing back towards teaching. For England’s 1.5 million £9k-a-year paying undergrads, this can only be good news.

Private universities continued to be welcomed into the English HE market, though the New College of the Humanities fell short of its very modest recruitment targets once again. Three-quarters of its £18k-a-year paying students attended an independent school.

Such was demand elsewhere, however, the government was left with a black hole in its budget. With plans to sell off the student loan books being likened to a Ponzi scheme, some wonder why we seem intent on following the US down the path of bubbling, unsustainable student debt at a time when Germany are abandoning their fees experiment altogether.

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Sadly, 2013 saw the demise of the 1994 Group. Meanwhile, the University Alliance’s end-of-year message raised eyebrows by commending the government for courageously taking the “economic and moral high ground” (my italics). It also raised questions about what exactly HE mission groups and consortia are for.

Politically, Willetts and Cable continue to pull the strings, while Graduate Tax advocate Liam Byrne replaced Shabana Mahmood as Labour’s Shadow HE minister.

Universities UK got told off by Polly Toynbee for suggesting it’s okay to segregate female and male students, and Sussex Uni quickly reversed its decision to suspend five students for protesting peacefully.

In terms of WP, the proportion of poorer students applying for university held firm, though ‘top’ universities continue to recruit at much lower levels than other institutions.

According to a Sutton Trust report issued in November, at least one quarter of this “access gap” can’t be attributed to academic achievement, further evidence that there may be more to Russell Group under-representation than A-level performance.

And what to expect from 2014?

Well, English universities will soon be able to take as many students as they like. That’s good news for many, but it could increase the pressure on struggling institutions to maintain market share as their sought-after WP students are lured elsewhere.

Universities free from recruitment anxieties will continue to press for the £9k cap to rise.

Student-Debt

Meanwhile, early applications figures for 2014 are down 3% on the same time last year.

Long-term, it may not be the headline £9,000 figure that’s most damaging to the HE sector.

Rather – as I’ve argued elsewhere this year – a bigger problem could be continued uncertainty about the security, fairness and expense of the student loan system itself.

The ‘Avalanche’ Metaphor in UK Higher Education

According to a March 2013 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research:

“Right now, nothing looks more solid, more like that snow-covered mountainside, than the traditional university…”

This doesn’t sound good. Mountainsides never stay all nice and snow-covered for long. We all know what’s on its way. And, sure enough, the report soon breaks the news that we all feared:

“…an avalanche is coming.”

 

The report’s author is Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor at Pearson. Pearson is keen to get a foothold in the UK higher education market, and already run a few courses. Sir Michael chairs the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, because “affordable schools, operated on a for-profit basis, can make a big difference”. Barber is also responsible for coining the neologism ‘deliverology’, a truly beautiful addition to the educational lexicon.

The report is co-authored by two of Sir Michael’s colleagues, one of whom is Pearson’s ‘Executive Director of Efficacy’. Parts of the text are oddly chummy – “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale” – and I did sometimes wonder quite how much time the authors spent researching their topic in the lower reaches of the UK’s post-92 sector.

In fairness, ‘An Avalanche is Coming’ – characterised elsewhere as a “rich and nuanced account of the technological and economic pressures facing higher education” – raises some very important questions. Why should universities bother with research if that’s what thinktanks are for? How can any funding system accommodate the needs of mature students? Shouldn’t learning always be delivered through practice and mentorship? Doesn’t some HE teaching still assume that all students are would-be academics? Why does the cost of higher education rise faster than inflation? Can three year degrees remain the norm?

Particularly interesting is the way in which the report speculates about what students really want from a degree. While accepting that “undergraduates are too often seen as a necessary drudge that, with promotion, perhaps one can give up”, the authors don’t draw the simplistic conclusion that competition alone will drive up teaching quality:

“For many students it is the degree itself rather than the teaching and learning that really matters. A degree has currency in the labour market and, while … its value may be falling, it is nevertheless a passport to a range of professional opportunities denied to those without one… The university brand remains potent.”

Few answers are offered (“ponder anew,” we’re advised), but the tenor is pro-MOOC, pro-business and relentlessly pro-unbundling. New metaphors are offered on every page (“in the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat, with a keen eye trained on value”), but less attention is paid to diagrams being printed the right way round (see Figure Six, page 66).

An Avalanche is Coming” follows on from “The Oceans of Innovation”. However, for most in HE, the avalanche isn’t ‘coming’ – it’s been around for some time. The cause isn’t restless students, demanding a marketplace based on debt tolerance rather than academic potential; it’s the end-product of an ideology that began with the idea that “universities are complacent because they are over-protected from the market.”

Avalanches, like oceans, are natural phenomena. However, many of the issues facing UK universities are man-made. As a society, we’re choosing to see HE as private commodity, not a public good. Ways forward are still available – and Sir Michael helpfully points us in the direction of many – but whether metaphors of impending catastrophe allow the issue to be better understood, I’m not sure.