It’s not easy being green

The UK Government’s ‘Fulfilling Our Potential’ green paper on higher education (subtitle: “Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”) was published today (not yet on official site, but PDF here). Of course, there is excellent coverage in places such as the Times Higher and WonkHE. Here are some initial impressions on my part (breakfast reading, so excuse errors). Bear in mind that my current admin role is on the research side of the house – and I have not kept up to date with developments in national HE teaching policy in recent years; working in Scotland was a part of that, for sure, and it’s worth remembering that today’s paper is what the Government has to say in respect of England in most cases. In particular, I am not very familiar with the latest developments for ‘alternative’ providers, etc, so haven’t really considered those aspects of the paper.

In no particular order:

  • There is, as expected, some discussion of data obtained through the National Student Survey (NSS), including a proposal that it be one of the three (existing) data sources for teaching excellence. Now, the main thing the NSS tries to measure is satisfaction. That’s something to be interested in, for sure. What I don’t yet see is the link between satisfaction and quality. To take one (disturbing) example, evidence from the US suggests that there may be a relationship between student surveys/evaluations and particular forms of discriminations (e.g. gender, race) (see here, and here). Of course, student evaluations can be a useful part of a conversation on teaching. And, if a group of students feels dissatisfied with their teacher on gender grounds, that is a scientifically interesting finding for all sorts of reasons. What it isn’t is anything meaningful about the quality of the teaching delivered by that teacher.
  • Similarly, we’re asked whether data on careers (the Destinations survey) and retention should be used – these are the other two ‘existing’ sources proposed to be used, alongside institutional evidence and new data. Destinations is tricky in some disciplines (like mine) and using retention measurements might mean a perverse incentive to do everything to avoid students failing, at the cost of academic standards.
  • The report identifies competition for attention and resources between teaching and research within institutions. (This is primarily attributed to Graham Gibbs’ work). In my view, this section could have been greatly strengthened with a discussion of the relationship between research and teaching – particularly positive dimensions (e.g. the sometimes-mocked but potentially very thoughtful concept of research-led teaching). Ironically, the report ends up reinforcing the separation.
  • As expected, and just as in consumer policy (a clear template for the current Government approach to higher education governance), there is a great focus on the provision of information. Better information would be useful, but is not an answer in its own right. We know this from research on consumer law itself, e.g. Geraint Howells’ work (where there has been a similar obsession with how homo economicus will make better decisions and drive competitive markets if only standards and requirements are replaced with disclosure…), and we also need to know more about the relationship between information and quality (if 50% of staff in university X have a teaching qualification, is that important because students say they want to know that or because it affects the quality of teaching?)
  • Rather comically, after pages and pages on the importance of information and transparency, there’s a suggestion that requiring publicly funded institutions to comply with the Freedom of Information Act might need deregulation (because ‘private’ providers aren’t covered – not truly private given the indirect state support through the loan system of course). The idea of levelling the field through extending the FOI Act to all providers seems genuinely not to have occurred to them, despite the love affair with information.
  • I didn’t expect to see discussion of GPA rather than classic classification. It’s in gentle terms (not to be part of the TEF in the first instance), although it is something that might be welcome (personally I would favour it). The problem for the current approach to HE policy is that something like this (which if it is to work requires coordination) isn’t being discussed in a coordinated way. It’s far too easy for a Government to claim things are student-led and based on institutional autonomy while still trying to achieve its preferred results.
  • One of the ideas being floated as a new measurement of teaching excellence is ‘learning gain’. This is a significant part of quality discussions in other sectors e.g. post-primary (GCSE and A Level). The difference, though, is that universities set their own exams and marking standards. So, it places a lot of pressure on external examiners and QA processes, to guard against learning gain being demonstrated through grade inflation (which the report highlights as a problem, separately). (By the way, what about institutions already admitting students with very high school-leaving performance – zero gain?)
  • Whatever happened to the poor Office of the Independent Adjudicator? Its work has been hugely significant, not just in individual cases but in prompting universities to revisit their policies and procedures (sometimes long overdue). But, there’s discussion of Which?’s work on HE conditions/contracts (which I thought much less important), and nothing on the OIAHE. Odd.
  • The discussion of research (policy and funding) is quite thin. There is a broad commitment to dual support (i.e. a mix of funding for institutions based on past quality, and funding for specific projects), but not much detail on how this is to be governed. We see mention of the forthcoming review of the research councils, as well as a couple of points on the REF (pretty much confirming the next one will happen but not until 2021), and  some harsh words on internal ‘mock REFs’ and similar exercises going too far. That last one is an important point, although specific evidence or advice would have been more useful. (I know, I know, it’s only a Green Paper, but there’s no reluctance to supply evidence or detail in some other parts – it does seem like an afterthought mixed with gossip and gut feeling!)
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