The age of entrenchment

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on the government’s woeful approach to scrutiny of its Higher Education & Research Bill

After the opening day drama of a government defeat on the definition of a university, the Lords Committee stage of the Higher Research and Education Bill has continued in calmer waters, focussing on important though less contentious matters. Today’s fourth session however, sees one major aspect of the proposals come under scrutiny.  

It concerns the means by which the Bill proposes to measure teaching quality, a matter on which decades of educational research has failed to develop any reliable measurement. What has caused greater angst however, as well as anger, is the plan to link ‘quality’ ratings with the extent to which a university can raise its course fees. Labour is of course, fully behind any initiative that could raise standards in teaching. But there is no reason to believe improvements would simply follow the carrot of higher fees being dangled in front of academics.

The mechanism for setting fee limits, permitting providers to charge up to an inflation-linked cap according to their quality ratings, will be the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Within this, there will be a heavy reliance on crude metrics covering course retention figures, the employment record of graduates and ‘student satisfaction’, among other matters.

All of these have pitfalls. For example, the government is currently trialling examinations to measure students’ overall ‘learning gain’. If this becomes a metric for teaching excellence, universities will inevitably start coaching students on how to maximise such tests. And along with ending the measurement of real outcomes, existing subjects could suffer as academics turn over class time for prepping. Students could end up learning less as a result.

Worse still, the proposal is that the TEF will have three ‘pass’ ratings – gold, silver and bronze. Each will signify that an institution is performing satisfactorily, but clearly a bronze rating will not convey that impression to potential students – both in the UK and internationally. Unsurprisingly, no other country brands its universities in this ‘traffic light’ manner. Many vice-chancellors believe ours would be placed at a significant disadvantage in the eyes of the world should the system be adopted.

A Labour amendment to be debated today seeks to simplify the process by suggesting that the TEF should have just two ratings: ‘meets expectations’ and ‘fails to meet expectations’. Common sense, you might have thought, though doubtless the Lords Minister will find a way to dismiss it in much the same entrenched manner as he has done with many of the 200 amendments considered so far in Committee. An approach that the government should perhaps reflect on ahead of what promises to be a tricky Report stage.

Come those later debates, the TEF is likely to be voted on. But we have other related amendments today, such as requiring the Secretary of State’s definition of a high level quality rating to be the subject of regulation and that the TEF must not determine whether a higher education provider is permitted to enrol international students. The TEF and its operation are included in Clause 25 and Schedule 2, both of which we want removed from the Bill. I can of course, guess how the Minister and his boss, the Bill’s architect, Jo Johnson MP are likely to respond.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 18th January 2017

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