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Things are changing in HE, but is it the change we want to see?

Friday 16-10-2015 - 18:02

I thought I’d do a blog based on a recent speech I’ve given about something that is quite topical - quality assessment and teaching excellence.

I could write some wet stuff about how students should shape discussions about quality, how student engagement should work better or something on inclusivity in learning - guess I’m known for that. And I’m probably expected to talk about how we can use current opportunities for reviews and consultations in order to do that.

I didn’t really get elected on that mandate though. And I know everyone expects me to touch upon the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). And we know we are getting a Higher Education Green Paper soon that might change the whole landscape of the sector.

If you managed to hide under a rock the TEF is a promise in the Tory manifesto about a framework for measuring how excellent at teaching universities are and allow the top scoring ones to raise tuition fees in line with inflation, and also include metrics such as graduate employment outcomes and salaries.

What we also know is that a new Quality Assessment system and TEF will not run separately and in parallel but will be joined up.

So I want to talk about the place of the student movement within those rapid changes and the threats posed to the HE system and to our education. And I want to get you to start thinking about what our vision of education is, because we’ve heard what the government’s vision is.

I also don’t want to regurgitate the same things we’ve all been reading and talking about already:

  • the fact that there is no one definition of teaching excellence or quality
  • the fact that all is context dependent and one size doesn't fit all
  • the fact that we cant talk about teaching quality without talking about quality learning
  • the fact that we want the student voice to be strengthened through any proposals

I won’t go into these because this is what you already know and you are doing really well and you’re changing students’ lives every day.

So I’m going to talk about the dilemma I find myself in. I’m going to talk about the push and pull between marketisation and regulation.

I’m going to start with the first horn of the dilemma - which is the need to oppose marketisation and any creeping measures that amount to it.

I’ve said it many times. My vision for a truly transformative education system is to put access and liberation at the heart of HE.

So you might think I’m glad to see Widening Participation metrics or attainment gaps and differential graduate outcomes as part of TEF, or more student voice and engagement in it. Well not really. Because I think this is lip service.

The TEF looks like another attempt to turn part of our education into a commodity to be ineptly measured and damagingly sold. The principles it is based on - that what drives teaching quality is competition and markets - are opposed to everything I believe in and to just about all of NUS’s policy.

Lets not pretend that a promise for student voice means that we are going to see the changes that we want to see. Lets not pretend a government that is the most damaging to students in the last 25 years will want to hear what we have to say. Lets not pretend that the institutions which have been taking all the changes this government has imposed to HE lying down - will now stick up for us. Our institutions are becoming more and more powerless in the face of the market unless they collectively decide to pull the plug and speak up - but they can’t really organise together can they - because they’re competing with each other for survival.

Furthermore, universities are good at fiddling data, changing admissions and recruitment practices in order to get desired outcomes - that’s easier than reforming the systems.

The TEF is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen - because in a free market the state doesn’t intervene and just lets things run their course. So this does constitute a state intervention to ‘root out bad teaching’ and incentivise ‘excellent teaching’, so Jo johnson says. Shouldn’t someone of my political flavour be happy about this? If only this were about the accountability of institutions’ use of public funding. It’s not because this is practically non-existent - as most institutions survive from tuition fees. So this is about playing with market forces to create a league table of teaching - where student’s voice means consumer choice - and our whole power lies in our decision of where to take our money, or our debt rather.

The TEF constitutes a shift towards a mixed market, with a combination of market mechanisms and state bureaucracy.

The REF (Research Excellence Framework) - the older ugly sibling of the TEF-  was a large shift from a laissez-faire approach to the allocation of public spending for research in an era of trust, to one in which the state took greater oversight, creating a quasi-market with all of the distinctly non-market features of accountability and bureaucracy which that entails.

By contrast, the TEF is essentially another roll of the dice of marketisation, an attempt to finally create a functioning market in undergraduate tuition. It follows the failure of the last attempts at marketisation of higher education to deliver what was hoped for. For example, there is no real fee differentiation across the sector as most institutions charge £9,000 for at least some of their courses.

I will not stand making cosmetic changes to yet another measure that further removes us from our vision of what education should be like and transforms the entire game, while they throw in some things that sound good to trip us up. Our vision of access and change isn't just getting underprivileged students through the door and succeeding at Oxbridge - it’s having a truly liberated and accessible education system across all its institutions and for all students.

But now the other horn of my dilemma is: I want to see things like access improved and attainment gaps closed and teaching being better and I recognise institutions could do a lot to improve outcomes and teaching practices. And we need to talk more about accountability and institutions need to be held accountable.

I reject the market because of principles but not because of dogmatism or resistance to change.

The problem I find myself in is how do we engender change because I don’t trust academia to be left to run its course. Because it would perpetuate the same privileges. Many academics, regardless of discipline, argue that they should simply be given chunks of money, preferably public rather than private, and left alone. So how do we ensure accountability takes place?

Even if tuition fees didn't exist and the cost of living wasn't prohibitive - inequality would still exist. Because the education system as it is, is both a tool for liberation and for oppression.  We have a Eurocentric and heavily Westernised system where curricula are unrepresentative of women, Black, LGBT+, and disabled people’s lives. Because what ‘success’ means in academia is still the judgement of the powerful few - of the white rich men who created the system and guard its gates. The academic system itself is oppressive. The Black attainment gap exists not because those students lack aspiration or aren’t supported enough, it’s because the standards for achievement and success are institutionally racist.

Academics won’t become more representative unless students succeed at all level of study. Like I said access isn't just getting poor kids into the same system - it’s changing the system so that it works for everyone - and this requires a shift in power from the powerful to the powerless.

There are only 17 Black women professors in the UK - but I wonder why when I learn more from Black feminists on Twitter than when sat through a lecture in postcolonial theory. And I wonder why aren't the people on Twitter teaching me, why aren't they given academic jobs when they apply for them - and it’s because their work isn’t deemed ‘academic’.

I want to shake up the academic establishment which essentially looks like a cartel.

Teaching practices aren’t always inclusive, and I’m sometimes uncomfortable around the rhetoric of crusty senior academics, often men, who are ‘against all metrics and performance management’  - which I also politically agree with. I’m against marketisation and hold academic freedom very dear. I firmly believe students and staff should be allies in working to establish the thriving academic communities they want to see. But I can’t help but notice that calls to unite and resist marketisation, often oppose metrics for metrics sake and refuse to be reflective at the oppression that happens within the system they are trying to protect.

So how should we make decisions over distributing public funding fairly and how do we ensure teaching quality and inclusivity? How do we ensure it isn’t the same voices that have all the platforms and power making the rules?

What do we, as a movement, do when any change is hampered around a vacuous call for unity that maintains the status quo? That solidifies the academic establishment?

We want change to happen. But how do we do this when all the reforms announced go against our values and our vision? Does pushing for the changes we want to see through these reforms make us complicit in the system and the propping up of markets - with the government bringing us down to our knees using our very own language of partnership and engagement?

On the other hand will a lighter-touch approach to quality assessment/ assurance be enough to provide students and taxpayers with the protection and reassurance they seek in a new risk-laden phase of funding cuts, growing undergraduate numbers and increased competition between institutions?

These are my questions to you. What do we want to see happening? What does our vision of ensuring teaching quality look like and an equitable system of partnership and regulation between institutions, staff, students and funders look like?

I hope the HE Zone Conference will be the start of such a discussion. Read our 'Two Views. You Choose' article debating whether the marketisation of Higher Education should be resisted from the inside or rejected outright.

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