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The green paper is coming – get ready for another numbers game

mike boxall | the guardian | 5 November 2015

Universities are bracing themselves for some of the most disruptive changes to higher education for more than 20 years. The imminent higher education green paper is widely expected to sweep away the funding and regulatory regime that has shaped the sector since the seminal 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, and replace it with new rules of engagement and new control mechanisms.

Central to the expected changes is the abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and several other sector quangos. The reforms are also likely to provide fast-tracked degree-awarding powers for new universities and revamped quality assessment processes based on a new Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef).

But before we begin assessing the mechanics and impacts of the proposed reforms, it is worth pausing to ask what problems the green paper is actually seeking to resolve and whether it is addressing the most important issues facing higher education in the UK today.

Improving university teaching
Jo Johnson, the minister for universities, has made clear his view that many universities have been failing young people and employers by providing students with “patchy”, even “execrable”, teaching experiences. His solutions, well trailed over recent weeks, include the Tef; intended to incentivise better teaching in the way that the Research Excellence Framework (no relation) is held to have boosted research performance.

The immediate difficulty here is the lack of agreement about what high-quality university teaching actually looks like, still less how to measure it. Unlike school teaching, which is focused on the acquisition and testing of subject matter, higher education is about intellectual and personal formation, which is a far more slippery matter. The metrics mooted for the Tef are, at best, crude proxies for the quality of teaching provision, and at worst, measures of something different altogether.

Balancing teaching and research
A second strand of Mr Johnson’s critique of universities is the alleged subordination of education and teaching in favour of academic research. Looking at most universities’ declared priorities, and the terms in which they assert their importance, there is clearly some substance to this perception.

There is also evidence that some of the most prestigious universities for research would be rated among the worst in terms of potential Tef measures. It will be interesting to see whether the Tef metrics are applied at face value (which could lead to a parallel system of research-rated and teaching-rated institutions), or whether the powerful Russell Group institutions are allowed to assert their excellence on whatever measures are used.

 
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Levelling the playing field
The green paper is also likely to reassert the government’s ambition for a competitive market in higher education, and its view that market failures are short-changing students, employers and taxpayers. Quality-based competition will be encouraged by measures to level the playing field between existing providers and innovative newcomers. At the heart of the proposed market reforms is the belief that student choice between providers – and the competitive fortunes of those providers – depends on how well young people are informed about teaching quality at institutional level. The evidence for that belief is not encouraging.

All of the teaching quality measures envisaged for the Tef are already widely available. They can be found in the key information sets published by Unistats, through the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA) institutional reviews, and in the National Student Survey (NSS). There is little evidence that student choices are strongly influenced by these statistics, not least because they are published at institutional level, while students choose courses first and institutions second.
Indications are that the Tef is likely to operate only at institutional levels. There is much greater variation in the quality of teaching and student experiences between courses within institutions than between universities, so aggregated and averaged institutional data will have little value for prospective students.

So what will it mean?
Information on teaching quality, even when summarised in newspaper league tables, is less important to students (and their parents and teachers), than the perceived reputation and prestige of particular universities. As undergraduate teaching becomes more and more of a buyers’ market, students are encouraged to go to the “best” universities that they can. This is despite the remarkably poor performance of many prestigious institutions on teaching quality measures. As long as employers continue to favour graduates from a limited range of universities, this will remain a rational basis for student choices (although recent moves towards “university-blind” recruitment by some major employers may presage a change here).

Despite these inconvenient contradictions, the Tef and other likely green paper reforms are, as one vice-chancellor put it, “doomed to succeed”. We will get a new teaching quality regime, overseen by a born-again marriage of Hefce and the QAA. Universities will invest time and effort to ensure their Tef scores are as flattering as possible, as they have done with the NSS and student destinations returns.

But will this lead to more relevant and more accessible learning opportunities for students from all kinds of backgrounds, especially those in work or apprenticeships, or those from poorer families? The green paper will doubtless contain encouragement for these goals, but the danger is that universities will home in on the bottom line and treat teaching quality as just another numbers game. 

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group

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