A Few Thoughts on the TEF (Teaching REF)

18 11 2015

As those of you who follow developments in UK Higher Education know, the British government is currently contemplating a hare-brained scheme a new system of monitoring and regulation designed to improve the quality of [undergraduate?] education in British universities.  The proposed system, which will be called the Teaching Excellence Framework if it is actually implemented, will involve a government agency, HEFCE, measuring and then ranking the performance of universities using a number of criteria. Funding will then follow to universities that do well on this system.



I understand that there are legitimate concerns about the quality of higher education in the UK relative to other advanced countries with similar levels of GDP per capita. These concerns have been highlighted by recent press coverage about academically superb British students who turn down offers from elite British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to study in the United States. The Daily Telegraph, which is read by many people in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, ran an alarmist story on the subject last year. This story reported that more than 10,000 bright British students now study at universities in the United States and that they are attracted by the such things as generous financial aid packages, favourable faculty-student ratios, and the other forms of support that increase student satisfaction. The story also quoted the headmaster of a prestigious boarding school who said “There’s an allure about studying in America and having a broader, liberal arts approach with greater focus on sport, music and artistic prowess. It is a more generous vision of what higher education can be rather than the utilitarian approach we see in the UK [universities].”

If the British government wants to make the student experience in the UK more like that of the United States the correct response to this trend would be for the government to try to increase the percentage of GDP that is devoted to higher education.  (I’m not saying that making British universities more like American ones would actually be a good thing,  as the US student experience encompasses everything from great teaching at liberal arts colleges to racist frat boys in Missouri to crushing student debt loads to Mattress Girl to wonderful libraries to campus shooting sprees). More money would help. As everyone knows, the UK falls short on the higher education GDP table and just four European countries spend less as a proportion of national income. The British government could increase the resources that universities have to devote to students either by increasing public spending on higher education as a percentage of GDP. Alternatively, it could encourage private donors to give more generously to British universities, which would have the net effect of increasing the overall percentage of GDP devoted to universities.  (To his credit, a leading Conservative businessman Lord Ashcroft has given generously to the business school at the University of East Anglia).  Large endowments might allow British universities to close to perceived gap in student experience with the United States.  The British government might incentivize wealthy people to donate to universities through the honours system or  by making it known that wealthy individuals who fail to donate to universities will be exclude from social events involving the Queen.

However, the British government has done nothing of the sort and will continue to fund its higher education sector with a very slender slice of GDP. Instead, the laughable proposal contained in the recent Green Paper is to try to improve the student experience through a species of central planning. A vast and costly bureaucracy will be created to try to measure student satisfaction, which is apparently the best way of measuring the quality of education. (I would have said that retrospective graduate satisfaction, measured say three years after graduation is a better measure). To ensure that academics perform a variety of tick-box exercises, universities will be expected to devote resources to creating costly monitoring and reporting systems.

The proposed regulatory structure looks like this:


As Martin McQuillian notes, this proposal for a new bureaucracy is ironically being justified on the grounds it will somehow create a more competitive market in higher education.

There is a remarkable contradiction in all of this. The government is proposing a substantial apparatus of scrutiny, surveillance, intervention and interpolation, which will occupy untold hours of academic staff time.  It involves delegating new powers to the minister and to BIS and creating a new regulatory landscape that will take years to bed in. In total it represents a very substantial incursion of the state into universities, even if the paper insists that the TEF will be administered at arms length from government. In the name of creating a dynamic market the green paper proposes to build a glorious state bureaucracy.

Ranking systems (remember Consumer Reports product rankings for TV picture quality) do serve a useful service in any market economy as they help consumers to determine value for money before making a costly purchase. Rankings of universities, such as those produced by US News and World Report or the Guardian and Times Higher league tables, can serve a useful function in guiding prospective students to the universities that offer the best student experience. What the British government should do it encourage the development of a competitive market for university rankings.  The best rankings of university teaching quality involve extensive field research, which is very costly, since it involves sending well qualified, and therefore well-paid, academics into countless universities classrooms to do observations. For instance, when researchers at Teachers College of Columbia University and at Yeshiva University, tried to develop a way to compare the educational quality of courses across institutions, they sent observers to sample no less than 587 courses at four different universities.  Even then, there were serious questions about the representativeness of the sampling method and the method of evaluation.  My point is that while the field research needed to produce credible rankings of university teaching quality is expensive, the government may wish to subsidize the production of the rankings in some fashion. However, it should not try to rank university teaching itself, as such an effort represents an attempt to create what is close to a monopoly in the teaching-quality ranking business. Such monopolies are rarely good for the consumers.



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