Friday 03-02-2017 - 14:44
In the past week, it's become very clear that the UK Government's 'Teaching Excellence Framework' is not taking hold in Scotland. Just 5 Scottish institutions have signed up to participate in the coming year,
I surely don't have to recite the many arguments that have been made against TEF, exposing it as a crass instrument to foster competition between universities and entrench marketisation in the education sector. But to summarise: the 'Teaching Excellence Framework' relies on ranking universities by 'satisfaction' scores and graduate destinations, so doesn't really measure the quality of teaching at all; it is numbers-driven and has no room for genuine student input; and TEF is designed to stratify the sector and link scores to increases in tuition fees.
Last year, we brought education officers from across Scotland together to identify the principles and practices we value in our existing Quality Enhancement System, so officers could go out and make their case for a collaborative and student-centered approach to excellence. We made it clear that only the retention and strengthening of existing practices, putting students at the heart of decision-making, was an acceptable approach to quality, and we engaged with the Scottish Government to reinforce this stance.
Across the country, Students' Associations led negotiations with their own institutions to make the case for Scottish universities steering their own course to teaching excellence based on partnership of staff and students, collaboration not competition, and enhancement of provision rather than metrics-led quality assurance. And, as the number of Scottish universities rejecting TEF shows, it worked. Students' Associations deserve huge amount of credit for the hard work and political nous they have shown in building on the relationship with their institutions - and building on a long history of positive engagement with teaching and learning provision - to put their case for the sort of education system we want to see.
This victory goes beyond banishing TEF from our universities in the coming year. On a sector level, we’re building on our existing Quality Enhancement Framework, ensuring the system doesn’t remain a distant and highly technical area of expertise led by policy wonks and professional nerds (including yours truly!).
Our long goal must be to open up and democratise the system, passing as much influence to students and teaching staff as possible. A quality system that is based on open collaboration is far harder to turn into a market; when students are active participants in changing the education system they cannot become passive customers; when students and staff have a shared vision for the provision and purpose of teaching they are capable of holding back the tide of marketisation.
But we also have to be honest that our arguments against TEF, as true and persuasive as they are, have been helped along by other motivations for University managers. Universities were casting around for any reason to reject a system which (fairly or not) could tarnish their institution's centuries-old reputation for elite teaching with a 'Silver' ranking - or even (god forbid!) a 'Bronze'.. This is unsurprising given a 'mock TEF' ranking published by the Times Higher Education saw many Scottish universities ranked in the bottom half of an ordered league table when they're used to out-performing their English counterparts.
Likewise, the complete detachment of tuition fees from TEF rankings in Scotland has made it that much easier for our unis to opt out. While most Scottish students pay no tuition fees, the Scottish Government has quietly indicated that tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK will be allowed to rise with the fee-cap down south. Scottish Universities, in TEF or not, will legally be able to raise rUK fees, as some have already indicated they will. If the proposals had been a little less burdensome, been directly linked to fees income, and matched the image of unquestionable excellence on which so many unis trade, our arguments against TEF may have fallen on deaf ears.
The battle against marketisation is not over then, but we have made vital progress in building the sort of alliances and advancing the principles that can defeat it. Over the coming years, this positive and ambitious vision that students have created for our education system can serve as the basis for transforming our universities, their place in society, and the leading role for Students' Associations in making that happen.