Last week Chris Husbands, chair of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment panel heralded in a new era of university fee increases under the pretence that the scheme would “shine a light on teaching provision”. The 295 institutions which took part have now been rated bronze, silver or gold allowing them to raise tuition fees in line with inflation in 2018-19. What Husbands failed to mention in his posturing commentary for the Times Education Supplement was that the assessment did not actually involve any observation on teaching. Instead the ratings are based on” data collection points” such as retention rates, National Student Survey results and progression to employment.
Unlike the rigorous Ofsted school inspection process which scrutinises teachers in the classroom, university teaching staff have had no involvement in the TEF assessment. Instead they have been left in the dark as to what makes their teaching excellent and worthy of a gold rating. The only clear objective of this tiered ranking system is to enable universities to compete and raise their fees year on year. Along with the National Student Survey – which the National Union of Students urged students to boycott this year – the TEF is another means by which universities can market themselves based on spurious data and hike up prices in the process. This monetisation is destroying universities from the inside out. Here’s how:
1. It’s creating a stifling consumer culture.
Universities are now subject to the Competition and Markets Authority meaning students are no longer learners and instead have been reclassified as customers. Academic staff job descriptors make it clear that lecturers must work in the customer’s best interest and, in effect, the customer is always right. Changes to curriculum have to be agreed by students and made over a year in advance so prospective students can be sold the idea. Academics with decades of expertise can no longer adapt to changes in thinking or practice in a timely manner because they are weighed down by policies and student consultation. If a course wants to introduce a mandatory dissertation and students do not want to do it, it can’t be implemented. This ultimately leads to a watering down of the curriculum and a selection of easy options which do not stretch or challenge students.
2. Mental health issues are rocketing.
Tuition fees, living costs and the lack of a universal living wage mean the financial pressures on students are immense. Many students are now the first in their family to go to university which brings with it a pressure to succeed at all costs and an expectation that their fees will earn them a first. This has resulted in rocketing mental health issues and a surge in students seeking counselling. Demand for mental health services has risen by 50% and universities are ill equipped to deal with it. Counselling services have long waiting lists and few academic staff have mental health training.
3. Vulnerable students are set up to fail.
Competition amongst institutions is creating a desperate scramble for bums on seats. Entry tariffs are being lowered on many courses and students who would normally be deemed below par are being accepted through clearing in a bid to meet unsustainable recruitment quotas. In 2016 there was a 50% rise in the number of students finding university places through clearing admissions. This means many vulnerable students struggle from the off because they do not have the academic ability to meet the demands of university assessments and can ultimately end up failing or withdrawing from the course, losing even more confidence in the process.
4. Knowledge and education is shifting to skills and instruction.
The multiple university league tables and the new TEF assessment all rely on metrics which include graduate employment rates and destinations. This is calculated via the Destination of Leavers in Higher Education (DLHE) annual report, another flawed data collection system that asks graduates to self-certify whether they consider their job ‘professional’ or not. The employability agenda is now driving universities meaning that education is secondary to finding a job. There is a focus on skills above knowledge with academics giving lectures and workshops on “How to Create a Great CV” and “Using LinkedIn to Find a Job” rather than how to become a critical thinker who can act as an informed, rational citizen. ‘Brand Me’ is pushed above community and society with industry often dictating curriculum and in some cases accreditation bodies prevent students from undertaking postgraduate research in favour of creating a portfolio of practical work. Both education and instruction are valuable but where is the value in spending £27,000 to learn employability skills?
5. Earning is taking priority over learning.
Rising student debt is causing students to fit their learning around their work rather than vice versa. A survey conducted by Endsleigh indicated that eight out of ten students are now working part-time to help fund their studies. Universities, particularly the former polytechnics, are filled with working class students who have no financial support from family and are forced to work long hours in low paid jobs. This is causing students to miss teaching sessions if they are scheduled to work because they can’t afford to say no. They will prioritise work over lectures and seminars and even miss a valuable placement experience to work an extra shift on minimum wage.
6. Controversial research is being censored.
The pressure to be attractive and marketable has far reaching consequences with universities focusing on applied research and projects which will receive high profile media coverage. University corporate communication teams are censoring the promotion of research output that does not appear to support the university agenda or may impact on recruitment. Academics are being driven into the private sector in order to continue their pursuit of knowledge as universities are more interested in returns.