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Will prestige issues disrupt the Teaching Excellence Framework?

  • 8 September 2016
  • By Nick Hillman

There are some universities that are excellent at research and others that are excellent at teaching. There are some that are excellent at both, where insights from new research brighten the lectures and vice versa. But the incentives for universities have been out of balance, with good research favoured over good teaching

For example, university league tables tend to give much more weight to research than teaching, as do academics’ promotion routes. According to the 2016 HEPI / HEA Academic Experience Survey, half of full-time undergraduates say it is very important for academics to ‘maintain and improve their teaching skills on a regular basis’ yet only one-in-six (18%) think their lecturers do this in practice.

That is why Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, wants to shine a light on teaching quality. His new Teaching Excellence Framework will measure teaching and learning at universities. It sounds simple but it is not. A new HEPI discussion paper, one of two in Tackling Wicked Issues: Prestige and Employment Outcomes in the Teaching Excellence Framework, argues the scheme wont work because it will force research and teaching apart.

No one knows for certain the best way to measure good university teaching. You can get academics to watch one another. But that is costly and far from fool-proof. You can ask students and lecturers how they spend their time. But evaluating the results is a new and uncertain science. You can test students when they start higher education and again when they graduate to find out what they have learnt. But that only works if there is agreement over what they should learn and a consensus on how to test it.

The Government’s intention is to measure teaching by proxy, using existing data. This will reveal if students are satisfied, whether they complete their courses and their chances of finding well-paid work. But the author of the new paper, Professor Paul Blackmore of King’s College London, says it wont help academics accrue what they crave: prestige. He argues only research does that.

Because the Teaching Excellence Framework does nothing to integrate teaching with research, it could end up a sideshow to the Research Excellence Framework. Professor Blackmore favours linking teaching and research at every level instead. That means three things. First, having one body to oversee and fund both teaching and research, rather than splicing the Higher Education Funding Council for England down the middle as Ministers are doing.

Secondly, linking teaching and research means rewarding staff that combine the two activities. The Coalition considered introducing a single Teaching and Research Excellence Framework, but we are to have two wholly separate assessments – the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Research Excellence Framework – instead.

Thirdly, to link teaching and research successfully, it must be reflected in the distribution of funding. That means connecting research funding to better teaching, and teaching funding to research-like learning. Nothing in the current plans moves in this direction and, without more money, it is hard to see how it can happen.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that a new wedge is being hammered in between teaching and research comes from the changes to Whitehall. Theresa May chose to move responsibility for university teaching to the Department for Education while policymaking for university research is in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

To be fair, if anyone can straddle that yawning gap, Jo Johnson can. But, if the author of our new paper is right (and these are issues on which wise heads differ), splitting teaching from research could ensure his successors feel like they are strapped into roller skates running off in different directions.

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

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