5 Reasons the Teaching in Excellence Framework is Bad News for Higher Education

by Jess Patterson

8 September 2015

For those concerned that a Conservative government will mean a more rapid pace to the marketisation of higher education (HE), the announcement of proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is bad news indeed. The TEF, it is suggested, will parallel the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which uses a set of metrics to rank universities every five years and award them funding based on the results.

While some have greeted the introduction of the TEF using the language of ‘student choice’, to those for whom such phrases leave the bad taste of neoliberalism, the TEF represents nothing more than an attack on education workers and students alike. Universities minister Jo Johnson’s announcement that the TEF, like the REF, would include “clear financial and reputational incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better,” translates into the idea universities will be judged according to their ability to produce high-earning graduates, rather than as centres of education and research.

1. The system is already broken.

The TEF follows in the footsteps of the REF – the results of which determine the allocation of research funding to institutions. The REF itself is not without criticism. As well as the argument that it has fostered an environment in which innovative research is considered too risky in favour of short-term outcomes, it can also be condemned on the basis that for an expensive (about £12m) and cumbersome process it actually tells us very little, as most universities have created their own internal bureaucracies in order to play the system.

Described by Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, as creating a system in which “universities’ main objective is to achieve better REF grades, not to produce excellent science and scholarship,” the question of why this is the basis for a further metric test is an important one…

2. Why do we need it? Fees, debt and austerity.

Part of the answer to this lies in the politics of austerity. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), responsible for dealing with HE, is in dire financial trouble. The trebling fees of tuition fees has, as many critics at the time predicted, resulted in a system where huge amounts of public money are having to be loaned out – 45% of which isn’t expected to get paid back.

This has created a huge strain on funding, as indicated by the move to sell off the student loan book. In addition, the latest budget announcement means BIS now has to cut another £450m from somewhere, hence the proposed cuts to maintenance grants and attacks on the Disabled Students’ Allowance.

Seen in the context of increasing financial pressure, Johnson is hoping to appease university vice-chancellors with the promise of throwing them extra cash, most likely in the form of higher fees, if they jump through the hoops laid out by the TEF. In other words, if institutions offer the right courses for business (i.e. science at the expense of the humanities, and within that, scientific research which benefits business) they will receive more funding and likely be able to raise their fees.

Assessing teaching according to these metrics has nothing to do with student interests; it is a simple means to turning education into a market.

3. The metrics of ‘value for money’.

The government’s proposals for HE surround three key manifesto pledges: lifting the cap on student numbers, delivering the TEF, and finally, “driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system.”

How? Johnson says he plans to “assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions benefits data.” Put simply, this will likely mean that the outcome-focused metrics are all about graduate earnings and employment.

Being a ‘good teacher’ becomes a glorified careers service where performance is measured by graduates’ paycheques. The TEF thus represents a ridiculously simplistic measure of success which wilfully ignores the stacks of research demonstrating that people with higher-earning parents will go into higher-paying graduate jobs, in a system that has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do class.

Moreover, the idea that courses receiving a label of excellence according to the metrics of ‘value for money’ can and will be employed to justify more aggressive measures, such as the axing of funding and grants. In this system both students and education workers suffer.

4. Teaching assessment and the casualisation of HE.

Many have pointed out there is already something similar to the TEF in terms of assessing university teaching: the National Student Survey (NSS). Worryingly, even student activists on the left of the free education debate have praised the survey for offering some level of accountability. This is odd when it’s clear the NSS rests on the assumption that students are consumers and universities and teachers are service providers. Johnson’s praise for the NSS, as well as repeated references to the Competition and Markets Authority, is indicative that the TEF is also based on this kind of thinking.

These kinds of metrics hurt workers in education. Johnson’s comment that “competition will also be central to our efforts to drive up standards,” endorses the continuation of a system in which almost half of academics are pressured into giving higher grades and already struggle with unmanageable workloads.

The idea that a series of leading questions can quantify the quality of an individual’s teaching methods is full of problems: particularly when these spurious metrics are used to justify redundancies, funding cuts, outsourcing and low-paid precarious contracts. An increasing amount of teaching is done by poorly-paid PhD students and early career academics on short-term contacts, and it’s precisely these already exploited workers who will come under increasing pressure to perform according the demands of the TEF. While the institutions may receive ‘financial incentives’ it’s unlikely that those actually delivering the services will benefit from better pay.

If we want to improve teaching we need to campaign for better pay and working conditions for education workers, as well as for more democratically run universities which don’t seek to measure the worth of education according to the demands of business.

5. A stratified system of HE.

Finally, the TEF encourages the separation of research and teaching. On an institutional level this threatens to divide universities, possibly already separated by higher and lower fees, into either ‘teaching’ or ‘research’ institutions.

At the level of the individual worker the rise of ‘teaching-only contracts’ has seen many early-career academics burdened with excessive teaching and marking loads, leaving them unable to pursue the research that is essential for their career development. Moreover, data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows the overwhelming majority of these less esteemed contracts are awarded to women and BME people. The TEF could well serve to widen these gaps.

Essentially then the TEF is a way of pricing different courses and different universities. The declared mission to “drive up standards in teaching” is in fact a plan to justify an increased and more explicit marketisation of education. Johnson’s talk of ‘incentives’ is an indication that the door is being left open to allowing those universities judged best by the TEF to ‘price’ themselves somewhere above the current £9k fee cap. As such the reward for ‘teaching excellence’ will be to allow those (likely already very rich) institutions to bring in more cash though higher fees. In other words, more money for management, reduced job security for staff and more debt for students.

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