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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

The role of a think tank on the TEF

  • 27 January 2016

The biggest joy I experienced on becoming the Director of an independent think tank two years ago, after a decade working for a political party, was the freedom to follow the evidence. People condemn politicians for not listening ‘to the experts’, but the job of our elected representatives is to balance evidence against other factors – such as what voters want, ethical standards and realpolitik.

Think tanks like the Higher Education Policy Institute live in a freer zone, where the evidence can play a more exalted role. For example, we can condemn the Government’s crackdowns on international students without having to worry so much about the potential electoral impact of a big increase in net inward migration. Parliamentarians are not so lucky.

A second joy in running an independent think tank, compared to working for a political party, comes from the absence of a party line. If politicians disagree with their party leaders, it can be a sackable offence. Indeed, when it comes to higher education you can even be sacked for agnosticism: one Tory MP, Lee Scott, lost his job as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2010 because he abstained rather than supported the tripling of tuition fees.

Again, think-tanks reside in a more liberal land. No one insists they deliver absolute ideological consistency at all times. That is a good thing because the job of a think tank is to shake up debate by injecting interesting contributions. Moreover, they are often involved at the start of an argument when things can typically still be a little fuzzy.

This explains our reaction to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The Government wants to use a basket of existing statistics, such as the labour market performance of graduates, as proxies for teaching quality in higher education. But these could risk perverse behaviour, such as the closure of successful courses that lead to careers with lower private returns but higher public returns.

So we have contributed to the debate over alternative approaches in three separate ways.

  • Tomorrow, we will publish a revised version of HEPI’s 2015 annual lecture, which was delivered in December by the OECD’s Director of Education, Andreas Schleicher (which will be available here). He believes we should test students on what they know instead of using proxies. He says we are better able to do this than we were a few years ago and the time has come to measure learning gain directly. It is a controversial idea, particularly – or so some people claim – in older universities that already boast a strong position in the league tables.
  • Our green paper response includes a chapter by Graham Gibbs, who is the expert on student engagement who put teaching quality on Whitehall’s radar a few years ago. He calls for the TEF to be postponed so that the Government can develop and use a new set of process measures, which assess ‘what you do with whoever your students are’. These could presumably include measures on issues such as the quality of feedback on students’ work or the balance between formative and summative assessments.
  • We have also recently published a blog by Professor John Vinney, Vice-Chancellor of Bournemouth University, who argues the TEF should learn from the Research Excellence Framework by using case studies to provide qualitative course-specific data. As he writes, ‘This would not provide a league table of institutions, sorted into levels, and would not make it easy to administer different fee regimes, but we don’t support those objectives.’

The other great joy of working for a think tank is the ability to propose constructive alternatives. That is more important than absolute consistency because better policymaking comes from healthy discussion, and in throwing the pieces up to see where they land. A few of the green paper responses we have seen veer instead towards destructive criticism, which could be counterproductive by offering Ministers the freedom to act how they please. After all, it is they who must ultimately decide the final shape of the TEF.

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