By Ian McNay
This contribution is adapted from a paper first written to brief the trustees of Coventry Students’ Union, and just before a THE feature on senior staff from Coventry. So, it emphasises the need for a student involvement in assessing teaching excellence, but the messages have resonance for the rest of us, I hope. There are four basic questions to ask:
- How do we define excellence/s? (The plural is important; excellence is contingent, it varies by purpose)
- How do we measure it? Output and outcomes may be easy; process less so
- How do we encourage and develop it?
- How do we reward it?
None have yet been answered, even at a basic level.
Jo Johnson’s speeches to UUK had some good points, but seemed to reflect little development in thinking in the two months between them, and to emphasise the economic elements of excellence. A recent report from the HE Academy (Stevenson et al: Pedagogic stratification and the changing landscape of HE) shows that it is a contested concept. A student view should be strongly articulated, and not just locally, nor just through NUS. Given Coventry’s position in recent league tables, what features led to those ratings? Can they be identified, incorporated and protected?
The process of evaluation needs to be different from the process TQA abandoned in 2002, which was dominated by paper documentation and bureaucracy. It took a lot of money to show that over 98% of provision was satisfactory and that, among 6 rating categories, those controlled by academic course staff scored more highly than management. One feature of TQA and of REF might be advocated, which may overcome some of the problems of a nationally defined approach – the institution/course makes a bid for recognition, defining its basis for the claim and offering evidence to support it. So, it becomes a bid, with the unit making its own case in its own terms.
There is an emphasis on metrics, and an expectation that they will feature prominently. But many are suspect and susceptible to ‘gaming’. Number of contact hours is less important than quality of contact. The emphasis on student engagement in students organising their own learning is welcome. If excellence relates to individual teachers, US data show that those who set lower expectations get higher ratings and that entertainment outranks educational content. Metrics are also ‘contingent’, so will be affected by context. Oxbridge gets better ratings for (eventual, not immediate) employment than modern universities because of students’ pre-entry background – school, qualification levels, family networks – so there cannot be a one size fits all as in league tables. Students should be strongly represented in defining the elements of quality so the criteria are not just what can be measured easily.
So, will the employability gains from volunteering be recognised as part of the provision of opportunity for learning? Are there other SU activities that add to a student’s learning gain and add value, and so should be in any bid?
We need to have a view about the level at which excellence is judged. The course seems the obvious one, aligning with KIS, for example. That seems to be the view of staff and curriculum development professionals (see a recent paper by Brown and Pickford). If so, the key people will be course reps, and it may be useful to brief them early in the coming year, perhaps after the Green Paper is published, since at the moment we have the idea, but not a lot of substance. A key decision may be about which external body in the current landscape will have lead responsibility for the TEF. If HEFCE is to be a student champion, as was mooted when it lost funding for teaching, this may be how that is manifested. But QAA may have a different view, and there may be mergers of organisations in plans for a shake-up of governance of English HE. Use of course avoids too close a link with REF, also run by HEFCE, but based on subject, and reduces the individual ratings element.
On rewards, students have a dilemma. The REF has a pot of extra money; there will be none for TEF, so it will come out of current budgets. That may reduce the loss of T funds to subsidise research, but it is likely that institutional reward from government in a context of austerity will be permission to raise fees. So, whereas for NSS students gave good grades so that they would be seen to graduate from a highly rated university, now such ratings may punish future generations of students through opening the gateway to higher fees. How do we escape that dilemma?
The devil may be in the detail. Given the lack of clarity in government announcements, we can only wait and watch. Perhaps Crown Prince Osborne will have something in the Autumn Statement, since as with New Labour, it seems to be the Treasury that drives policy.
SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.