This guest blog is written by Tom McKenzie, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Dundee and Fellow of the London Centre for Social Studies. It is, in part, a response to HEPI’s recent publication comparing the UK and German higher education systems.
University academics multitask. Broadly, our time is split between research, teaching and administrative duties. We differ in our aptitudes for each of these. Respective levels of intrinsic motivation vary greatly too. Institutions striving for the Humboldtian ideal of research-led teaching, that magic fusion between the latest ideas and student learning, may seek to nurture our skills and enthusiasms in every domain in order to make well-rounded scholars of us all. Yet the more is done to knock us into shape, the greater the risk of breaching Humboldt’s core principle of academic freedom.
First the REF
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) has run its course, concentrating academics’ efforts on research. Universities have squeezed maximum publications out of their own and bought in fresh academic stock from elsewhere to compensate shortfall. An inevitable consequence of academics spending more time on research is their displacement from teaching and administrative activities. Hence attempts to restore equilibrium in the Humboldtian model by offering incentives for teaching.
Enter the TEF
The new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is intended as a counterweight to the REF. Detail on the metrics is yet to emerge and speculation abounds. In an age of high tuition fees students do indeed have the right to demand quality assurance of their degree programmes. However if the government’s priority is to ensure “employers get graduates with the skills they need” then there is a more direct route than the TEF: scrap tuition fees and offer universities a stake in their graduates’ future earnings instead.
Towards a decoupling of research and teaching
The real danger I see in the TEF, far from a rebalancing of individual academics’ time between research and teaching, is the sorting of academics into separate pools of researchers and teachers. If the incentives offered for both research output and teaching effort are similar then it is only rational for academics to focus on the tasks they find easiest – and ignore the rest. There then follows a decoupling of research and teaching and the Humboldtian model is broken. Researchers will be slaves to their grant contracts. For the pool of university teachers, it will just be a matter of time before the MOOCs take over.
The academics who stand to gain most from REF and TEF are those talented in administration. Master distillers of league-table statistics, ever on hand to provide a pat on the back or let us know where we are failing, it is they who will be controlling our key performance indicators and steering academia in the years to come. Wilhelm von Humboldt might have suggested they take a light approach.