By Steven Jones
One might expect that asking a room full of diverse stakeholders to discuss ‘teaching excellence’ would result in all kinds of quarrels and disagreement. In fact, the SRHE’s September 2019 event (The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice) was a refreshingly convivial and creative affair.
Everyone present agreed that the TEF’s proxies for excellence were wholly inappropriate. In fact, there was surprisingly little discussion of existing metrics. We all felt that the consumerist language of ‘value for money’ and the instrumental lens of ‘employability’ were inadequate to capture the nuanced and complex ways in which curiosity can be sparked and orthodoxy challenged in the HE classroom.
Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka spoke about the absence of the student voice in TEF policy, noting that conceptualisations of ‘excellence’ tend to overlook the very moral and critical components of transformative teaching that students value most highly. Michael Tomlinson drew attention to student-as-consumer framings within the ‘measured market’, noting the inevitability of institutional game-playing, status leveraging and brand promotion in such a relentlessly competitive environment. Both speakers suggested that students were misleadingly empowered, lacking the agency that policy discourses attribute to them.
I tried to push this idea further, beginning my talk by asking whether any lecturer had ever actually changed the way they teach because of government policy. There was broad agreement that while excellence frameworks influenced professional cultures and co-opted university managers, they barely touched academic practice. Lecturers know their own students – and know how to teach them – better than any White Paper.
But is the TEF actually about university teaching at all? Or do too many barriers sit between policy and practice for that to be a realistic aim? Policy enactment in HE is interrupted by institutional autonomy, by academic freedom and, increasingly, by lecturers’ professional identity. The TEF’s real purpose, I would argue, is more about manipulating the discourse. It manufactures a crisis, positioning intractable academics as the problem and students as the victim, thus allowing competition to come along and save the day.
Grade inflation is one area in which the contradictions of top-down policy discourse are laid bare. The market demands that lecturers mark students’ work generously (so that ‘value added’ columns in league tables don’t hold back institutional ranking). Then policymakers wade in, attacking institutions for artificial increases and threatening fines for those who persist. The logic is inconsistent and confused, but this matters little – the discourse persuades voters that their own hard-won education successes are being devalued by a sector overprotective of its ‘snowflake’ customer base.
TEF provider statements offer the opportunity for universities to fight back, but evidence suggests they’re bland and indistinct, tending towards formulaic language and offering little additional clarity to the applicant.
But despite such missed opportunities, 73 Collier Street was full of new ideas. Opposition to metrics wasn’t based on change-resistance and ideological stubbornness. Indeed, as respondent Sal Jarvis noted, we urgently need to measure, understand and close differential attainment gaps in many areas, such as ethnicity. But there was consensus that current proxies for ‘excellence’ were incomplete, and creative thoughts about how they could be complemented. What about capturing graduates’ long-term well-being instead of their short-term satisfaction? Or encouraging institutions to develop their own frameworks based on their specific mission and their students’ needs? How about structural incentives for collaboration rather than competition? And a focus on teaching processes, not teaching outcomes?
The argument that the TEF is less about changing pedagogies than manipulating wider discourses shouldn’t bring any comfort to the sector. I tried to show how the dominant logic of teaching excellence primes the sector for more fundamental policy shifts, such as for-profit providers receiving taxpayer subsidy on pedagogical grounds. One delegate spoke to me at the end of the event to offer another example, explaining how employability-minded managers within his institution were squeezing out critical engagement with cultural theory to allow for further skills-based, professional training. The TEF may not change practice directly, but it retains the power to nudge the sector away from its core public roles towards more privatised and instrumental practices.
The challenge for us is to articulate a confident and robust defence of all kinds of university teaching. We need to explain how our pedagogies bring lifelong gains both to our students and to wider society, even if initial encounters can be difficult and unsettling. Policy has taken us a long way down the market’s cul-de-sac, but what’s reassuring is that we’re now moving on from TEF-bashing towards a coherent counter-narrative. This event confirmed that universities have more meaningful things to crow about than their fleeting goldenness against a bunch of false proxies.
SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The view expressed here are his own.