Teaching Excellence in a “Globalized” World?

Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control. Therefore we don’t really know what to do with information. Unanalyzed projects comes into existence simply because the information is there. Crowd sourcing takes the place of democracy. Universities become adjuncts to what is called international civil society; the humanities and imaginative social sciences bite the dust.

– Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, 1

University World News reports that the OECD’s Education Policy Committee is seeking to develop a new project for “benchmarking higher education systems performance [sic]” as a way of providing “more transparency” about the real outcome of courses:

Higher education internationally was operating as a hybrid public-private “quasi market”, [Frans van Vught] told the [“Higher Education Futures”] conference [organised by the OECD and the Singapore Ministry of Education on 14 October 2015], and it was a crucial market failure that clients-students and their families cannot get the information they need.

“They are unable to make rational informed choices. They pay more but they do not know more,” van Vught said. “Students can only judge the quality while they are actually experiencing it.”

It was important, he [Simon Marginson] said, because “we need to give learning outcomes equal status with research”, and to provide a better basis for student choice. It was also necessary to have something more solid than subjective “market-oriented student satisfaction surveys” as a basis for measurement.

This is set to replace the OECD’s discredited Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project. Although ‘AHELO was intended to measure teaching quality rather than institutions’ past reputation’, it proved difficult to standardize this information internationally because of national differences in HE systems. The new project seems designed to overcome this:

The backbone of our work on higher education will be to try to organise a situation where results of outcomes of learning at higher education institutions are more comparable,” he [OECD Deputy Secretary-General Stefan Kapferer] told the conference.

It is interesting how this anticipates and mirrors much of the emphasis and rhetoric of the UK government’s recent proposals for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), discussed here. Drawing a relation between the two places consideration of the TEF and its role in the government’s goal of creating and expanding the HE market in the UK within a more international context (including, of course, thinking about the effects on Scottish HE of introducing the TEF and variable fee caps to English and Welsh institutions).

We know expansion of the international market is of fundamental importance to the government’s reforms of HE but also a sticking point because it comes into tension with its position on immigration. There has been a decline in the number of international student starting courses in the UK since 2011, particularly of non-EU students from India (the number of Indian students starting courses in UK universities almost halved between 2011 and 2013) and of those studying STEM subjects (there was a drop of 10% for STEM subjects in the same period). Universities’ responsibility to ‘report’ to the Home Office on Tier 4 international students were tightened in 2011, requiring that they demonstrate such students are ‘attending lessons, lectures, tutorials, seminars or meetings with [their]… personal tutor/supervisor’ and ‘submitting coursework, or, attending tests or examinations’. London Met controversially fell foul of new regulations in 2012 and temporarily lost its sponsorship status (in part for failing to failing to properly monitor students). Institutions also have a cut-off point for the number of student visa applications refused by the Home Office, which was tightened in 2014 from 20% to 10%, and they must also ensure such students have proficiency in English (Glyndŵr University had its highly trusted sponsor status temporarily suspended in 2014 based on concerns over questionable English-language Proficiency tests, as did 57 private colleges). Applying for such a student visa currently costs £322, although new powers passed in the Immigration Act 2014 will increase the scope for the government to raise fees for visas and immigration services.

CNPzrSrWoAAv-eFIt is likely that recent changes to immigration policy, especially to the Tier 4 immigration route in 2013/2014, will continue to have some effect on certain institutions and subjects. The impact of such measures are filtering through to the every day experience of teaching and learning in HE, most notably in the introduction of electronic register systems which reports suggest have suddenly been installed in classrooms across a number of universities in London over the summer (and, presumably, are already present in other institutions). One teacher at Birkbeck has referred to this as ‘The Border in the Classroom‘.

In our recent HEAT reading group on Spivak’s writings on the theory and practice of education, we considered what Spivak praised as ‘learning the double bind – not just learning about it’ (Spivak, 1). Allan Parsons – picking up on the some of the points made in that reading group – has published an excellent post on this blog reflecting on the limitations of Spivak’s privileging of the classroom, which – he points out – is only the site of an ‘everyday struggle’ for the teacher, not for everyone else. Perhaps there is even something of – older, Freudian accounts of – schizophrenia in such claims: the withdrawal of the patient’s reality principle and the regression to a primary narcissism involves fantasies of the end of the world, just as educators frequently talk of a crisis in education as if it were – to quote from a famous speaker I once heard at a conference on HE – the “end of civilization” itself. Without wishing to undermine the serious and problematic implications of such changes, perhaps this also explains why changes to teaching and learning in HE are often experienced by teachers themselves as the elimination of higher education, while they actually involve its expansion.

One specific site of such a double bind – a structure in which we are obliged to react to two conflicting or even contradictory demands, which typically are given at different cognitive levels – is, in Spivak’s ‘Teaching for the Times,’ related to ‘Eurocentric economic migration’ (138):

It is no secret that liberal multiculturalism is determined by the demands of contemporary transnational capitalisms, our place within which we are obliged to disavow …What actually happens in a typical liberal, multicultural classroom “at its best”? On a given day we are reading a text from one national origin. The group in the classroom from that particular national origin in the general polity can identify with the richness of the texture of the “culture” in question …People from other national origins in the classroom… relate sympathetically but superficially, in an aura of same difference. (142)

How, then, might the ‘border in the classroom’ within UK – and specifically English and Welsh, if thinking about the TEF – – Higher Education reflect and reinforce those kinds of double binds: you must attract international students/you must not attract international students, you must treat everyone as equal/you must not treat everyone as equal? And, accepting Allan’s criticism of classroom-focused educators, how might this obligation to monitor and report on classroom attendance as a privileged measure of engagement produce other kinds of double-binds within contemporary education?

Spivak’s lessons: refractions of the scene of teaching

John Latham, Film Star, 1960
“In Marx’s text philosophy must thus displace itself into the everyday struggle. In my argument, literature, insofar as it is in the service of the emergence of the critical, must also displace itself thus.” (Spivak, 2002: 30)

Picking up from the blog post, Critique, criticality and the right to be critical, it might be suggested that here we are considering some aspects of the role of ‘the critical’ in ‘the everyday’, ‘the everyday’ conceived as a struggle or, in other words, agonistically, i.e. as political contest. This post is simultaneously published in Allan Parsons’ blog, Poiesis and Prolepsis.

The ‘everyday struggle’ for the teacher takes place in the classroom. For everyone else, the classroom struggle is an everyday occurrence for only that part of their lives when they are engaged in formal education. Formative as that ‘period’ may be (in a day-in-the-life divided into ‘periods’), it nevertheless opens out into other kinds of everyday struggle.

The question raised by Spivak in the quote above is whether ‘the critical’ (critical thinking, critique), which is a central part of the everyday struggle for the teacher, has wider value in the other kinds of everyday struggle experienced by those who engage in the everyday struggle of the classroom as a ‘period’ in their lives: the insertion of ‘the lessons’ from one struggle within other struggles.

Unless Spivak is suggesting, which by her own account she surely is not, that we are all engaged in the same struggle … ? The answer to this implicit question must be that, yes, in some ways we are all (the world’s inhabitants, the world’s population, human-reality-in-situation) engaged in the same struggle, but yet that struggle is not the same for all of us, positioned differently, and differentially, as we are.

Yet …

We seem to keep coming back to the classroom:

“Let us return to the undergraduate classroom” (Spivak, 1992: 9), “a typical liberal multicultural classroom” (Spivak, 1992: 7).

We seem to keep coming back to the text [-book] in the classroom:

“On a given day we are reading a text from one national origin.” (Spivak, 1992: 7).

We seem to keep coming back to the teacher and the text [-book] (from one national origin) in the classroom:

“Each discipline has its own species of “setting-to-work”- and the texture of the imagination belongs to the teacher of literary reading.” (Spivak, 2002: 26)

We seem to keep coming back to the teacher and the text[-book] (from one national origin) in the classroom, with the class:

“The group in the classroom from [the text[-book]’s, add. AP] national origin in the general polity can identify with the richness of the texture of the “culture” in question. (I am not even bringing up the question of the definition of culture.) People from other national origins in the classroom (other, that is, than Anglo) relate sympathetically but superficially, in an aura of same difference. The Anglo relates benevolently to everything, “knowing about other cultures” in a relativist glow.” (Spivak, 1992: 7)

We seem to keep coming back to the teacher and the text[-book] (from one national origin) in the classroom, with the class, wherein lies the student:

“Speaking to them and their teachers in December, I stressed repeatedly the importance of explaining the text, of explaining repeatedly, of checking to see if the student has understood.” (Spivak, 2002: 28)

It matters little if we substitute the (static, pictorial) image (painting or photograph) or the (cinematic) film (movie) for the text[-book]. Image and film can become text.

It matters little, equally, if we substitute the studio or the laboratory for the classroom. Studio and laboratory can become classroom.

In one account, then, the student, the student body, the classroom and the text[-book] are centred on the teacher, a centre from which the world (outside the classroom, by means of the text[-book], through critique) may be mastered.

Nevertheless …

Most learning takes place outside of the classroom. The scene of learning has multiple sites, one of which is the classroom, perhaps the archetypal ‘scene of teaching’, a scene which differs from that of indoctrination. Classroom teaching inflects that learning or refracts that learning, and may claim to be formalising that learning through learning-how-to-learn (formally), one the one hand, while critiquing that (everyday) learning, on the other hand.

Classroom learning re-articulates the learning that takes place outside the classroom. Without an awareness of the ‘out’ side of the classroom, already brought ‘in’ side by the student body and the student’s body, classroom teaching could not develop the specificity of its mode of learning, its particular inflection of everyday learning.

In the sense that it inaugurates learning, or brings to awareness the always-already of learning, it is in the form, partly, of an unlearning (of bad habits, the Platonic philosophical stance, raising the philosopher up from the everyday ‘man’) or a learning otherwise, but otherwise in the sense of disciplinary learning, a form of learning that may be more ‘technical’, more ‘analytical’, more ‘critical’: technique, technology, analysis, critique, the main modes through which the Western episteme is developed, which may be to say ‘method’ but not necessarily methodology.

Alternatively, such (re-)inauguration may form a making strange of what has been learned in the everyday, as in avant-garde art practices, which bring to attention what has been termed, in another time, the ‘absurdity’ of the everyday.

What classroom learning may, however, inaugurate is a mode of perceiving the world in more detail or, rather, as a series of fragments.

The scene of teaching, as has already been noted in a prior discussion of Basil Bernstein’s work [1], [2], [3] and [4], forms across a plurality of sites. What matters is the articulation of the modes of learning that take place within the different sites. The classroom is, in part, where you are classed, and may bring to awareness a degree of class consciousness, but not class mobilisation. The classroom is where you learn your class, categorically, where you learn to split your (imaginary-originary) persona among sites, to become an actant in different apparatuses; an actant, both acting and acted upon, both affecting and affected, both perceiving and perceived. [Note 1]

The text[-book]

John Latham, Film Star, 1960

The text[-book] may be seen as an articulated joint or hinge, bringing text and book into some kind of folding alignment, an arrangement which holds together two of the leaves or threads of university pedagogy as it has developed since the 18th century in the form of the professorial system, as a bridge from the professor’s speech to the disciplinary content, as discursive archive.

The text, the vital part, comes alive in the classroom, as ‘living presence’ in the hands of the teacher, who displays his/her mastery of the world which unfolds from the codex. The book, the dead part or the inert part, the text’s remains, so to speak, are held in the tomb of the library, which may or not be a magnificent monument. Together, both parts, the live part and the dead part, form the ‘materiality’ of the text[-book] or, in other words, its actantiality, its ability to rise from the dead, again and again, as the inert body of the book is resuscitated in the classroom, life breathed back into it through the teacher’s voice.

The text belongs to the teacher; the book belongs to the librarian.

The academic library …

The book may be studied in the library. What form of life does it take then and there, without the presence of the teacher. Has the teacher imparted ‘tools’, perhaps in the form of a conscientiousness or a method, to enable, at least, a partial text-to-eye resuscitation: can the student understand?; has the student understood?; can the student’s understanding be tested/assessed?

From another perspective, the learning that takes place in the classroom is (necessarily) supplemented by the learning that takes place without it (both outside of it and without the aid of the classroom), i.e. necessarily and so therefore not supplementarily: both necessary and supplementary.

One ‘immediate’ contextual feature of the classroom, the context which enters into the classroom frame metaleptically, so to speak, is the learning environment, or the learning ecology, constituted by the higher education institution: the (non-)place, material-virtual, the student enters in order to learn to be a student.

Of the several ‘non-places’ of this wider institutional learning environment, none is more present and more absent than the library. Not-classroom, not laboratory, not studio, not seminar room, not lecture hall, nevertheless, learning takes place there: learning (‘studying’) is where the library takes place. What kind of pedagogy inhabits or animates this kind of learning-taking-place?

Neither presence nor absence/both presence and absence, the academic library, as an element of/in the scene of teaching-as-learning or classroom teaching/learning, spread across several sites, constitutes a kind of learning, a testing moment (does the student understand?), which is not an external assessment, that opens the learner to a ‘void’, an untried and unanticipated step into learning/not-knowing, which is not a step towards knowing-as-mastery, and which brings into focus an awareness of the performative scaffolding from which that step is, hesitantly, being taken.

Becoming devoid of support, the student must find a way to deal with that emptiness (there is no step that is obvious, no direction to be taken), or simply with emptiness without particularity. Nevertheless, learning remains, in this elemental scene, an individual enterprise, private study, silent study, even in the midst of the (semi-)public space constituted by the library – subsumed in the classroom as the primary (traumatic) scene of teaching: instruction as in-struck-tion, as being struck, beaten into shape, finally stricken.

The text[-book], the classroom, the library and the world

What is missing, clearly, is a philosophy of the academic library, particularly a philosophical justification of the pedagogy of the library, a reasoned account of the learning that takes place in the library as the library, perhaps along the lines of curatorial pedagogy/pedgogical curation, one might joke.

This would be a performative account, focusing on what the library can do, for example, does the library de-centre the mastery of the teacher?; does the library disperse the living presence of the text[-book]; does the library endlessly defer knowing taking place; does the library open knowledge to sharing, through deferral and referral. And if the library performs thus, how does it do so?


Are we anywhere near understanding the academic library as part of a larger, multi-levelled, socio-technical learning environment and learning apparatus?

One could almost imagine a manifesto, such as those favoured by the profession of architecture, in which it is stated, as a series of slogans:

The academic library codifies multidisciplinarity, and holds the potential for interdisciplinarity, while permitting the possibility of cross- and trans-disciplinarity. The academic library materialised the ‘flipped classroom’ long before the phrase entered the educational vocabulary. The academic library facilitated ‘blended learning’, again long before this phrase entered the educational vocabulary. The academic library enables independent learning, which is non-classroom-based and a-curricular. The academic library promotes the sharing, exchange and circulation of ideas and knowledge, through collective learning. The academic library is one remaining isolated enclave of (limited, constrained) collective, public, shared, collegiate space. The academic library embodies the sociality, the materiality and the technicity of knowing. The academic library is a social medium, but neither purely nor simply. More programmatically, the library encourages rhizomatic learning, i.e. non-linear, mixed physical-social-virtual learning.

The academic library articulates the following principles, such a manifesto might go on to say:

  • The principle of browsing (chance)
  • The principle of derive (aimless, endless, wandering)
  • The principle of detournement (de- and re-contextualising)
  • The principle of collage, assemblage, montage (metaleptic, relational creativity)
  • The principle of curation (multi-media, multi-modal inter/trans-media/textuality)
  • The principle of avant-garde making-strange/defamiliarisation (critique  of ortho-doxy)
  • The principle of deconstruction (critique of injustice and exclusion)
  • The principle of Buddhist (in)direction (critique of teleology)
  • The principle of Buddhist mindfulness (‘silent study’ and its relations to the mindfulness of body, feelings/sensations, mind/consciousness and the dhammas, i.e. Buddhist teachings)

Last word … 

The last word falls to Spivak, her final lesson:

“The solution is not to write new textbooks, the liberal intellectuals’ favourite option.” (Spivak, 2002: 26)

[Note 1]

Lynsey Hanley (2015) reviews Mike Savage’s book, Social Class in the 21st Century, in The Guardian newspaper. She points out that Savage and his colleagues at the London School of Economics have constructed a seven-class schema for the UK in the 21st century, ranging from the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, the new affluent worker and emergent service workers, through to traditional working class and the precariat.


Hanley, L. (2015). “Social class in the 21st century” by Mike Savage. The Guardian, 14 November, Review p.7. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/13/social-class-21st-century-mike-savage-review [Accessed 15 November 2015]

Savage, M. (2015). Social class in the 21st century. London: Pelican.

Spivak, G.C. (1992). Teaching for the times. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 25 (1), 3–22. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1315070 [Accessed 11 November 2015].

Spivak, C.G. (2002). Ethics and politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and certain scenes of teaching. Diacritics, 32 (3/4), 17–31. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566443 [Accessed 11 November 2015].

Building the HEAT network


We spoke in the last reading group about building the Higher Education and Theory network in connection with other parts of the university and other institutions. I’ll try to write a bit more about this when I get a moment and it would be very helpful to read other people’s thoughts about effective and efficient ways of doing so. I was recently sent this article about ‘Building an Effective Impact Network’ and – although it is written in what (well, to me at least) feels like an over-reliance on policy-speak and (because of its context) seems to possess a rather instrumental view of networks that is overtly focused on impact – I wondered whether or not the principles it lays out could be of any – self-critical or productive – help in (re)focusing the HEAT network?

In this and a related article, it sets out the following four principles and five associated processes:

  • trust, not control;
  • humility, not brand;
  • node, not hub;
  • mission, not organization
  • Clarify purpose;
  • Convene the right people;
  • Cultivate trust;
  • Coordinate actions;
  • Collaborate generously

The Messiness of Learning?


Some interesting observations about the messiness of learning by Naomi Barnes, writing at Hybrid Pedagogy, who concludes:

Learning is much messier and dynamic than scaffolded, compartmentalised education policy would lead us to believe. In classrooms, keeping on topic and task is an important structural and behavioral expectation. Random thoughts are actively discouraged. I believe that we need to start paying more attention to the random thoughts because when learning is conceptualized as a web, rather than a line, randomness becomes more meaningful… Social constructivist trained teachers have experience in guiding collaborative problem solving. But instead of scaffolding the pathway to expertise, why not allow students to pursue their interests in a topic and then look for ways to synthesize what each student brings to the table?

Does this resonate with HEAT members’ own experiences in a useful way? Or are there problems with this approach?

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation

New Books in Education has a podcast interview with Tom Sperlinger, Reader in English Lite51MK8BdR9XL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_rature and Community Engagement at the University of Bristol, discussing his new book Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Zero Books, 2015):

The book is an account of Tom’s time teaching English literature at Al-Quds University, located in the Occupied West Bank. Because of their unique environment and perspective, the students in his class had interpretations of Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and other seminal English literature works that struck a chord with the author. Through his book, he provides a glimpse into the everyday aspects of a place that is not often discussed in terms of higher education.

From the book’s blurb, sounds like an fascinating project:

Is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ really a love story, or is it a play about young people living in dangerous circumstances? How might life under occupation produce a new reading of ‘Julius Caesar’? What choices must a group of Palestinian students make, when putting on a play which has Jewish protagonists? And why might a young Palestinian student refuse to read?
For five months at the start of 2013, Tom Sperlinger taught English literature at the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University in the Occupied West Bank. In this account of the semester, Sperlinger explores his students’ encounters with works from ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ to Kafka and Malcolm X. By placing stories from the classroom alongside anecdotes about life in the West Bank, Sperlinger shows how his own ideas about literature and teaching changed during his time in Palestine, and asks what such encounters might reveal about the nature of pedagogy and the role of a university under occupation.


The government’s Green Paper on HE, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choicehas been published today, including more detailed proposal for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF):

This consultation contains proposals to reshape the higher education landscape to have students at its heart. Its core aims are to raise teaching standards, provide greater focus on graduate employability, widen participation in higher education, and open up the sector to new high-quality entrants.

This document sets out proposals for how the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework will deliver better value for money for students, employers and taxpayers. It also sets out plans to drive social mobility by further increasing higher education participation by those from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

This consultation proposes a new single gateway for entry to the sector, which would create a common system for all providers. It sets out proposed new architecture for the higher education system, to reflect the way higher education is now funded by students, and to reduce the regulatory burden on the sector. Finally, this consultation considers the potential implications of these changes for the research landscape. (7)


The background to much of these changes are tied to concerns about economic growth, since education and training is seen as a key driver to wider growth and because the effective repayment of tuition fees depends upon students entering higher-earning jobs, as I mentioned in my previous post about the TEF:

The TEF will be primarily linked to graduate employment figures because, according to theories of human capital, investment in education and training should lead to increased earnings and the ongoing expansion of higher education should therefore lead to economic growth. The increased amount of debt related to student loans that accompanies this expansion is a problem, however, so the government wants to encourage courses that lead to graduate employment because this should increase economic growth and reduce the student loan debt by improving repayment figures. Permitting a partial relaxation of the cap will also introduce greater variation in course fees and so open up more of a market between kinds of providers; linking this to employment figures justifies the return on investment for the student.

Hence, the first main section of Fulfilling our Potential is entitled ‘The Productivity Challenge’, which begins by claiming that “Increasing productivity is one of the country’s main economic challenges, and universities have a vital role to play” (10) and links to a government paper from the summer entitled Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation.

Fixing the foundations claims a link between national productivity and living standards (equated with wages), such that “where average wages are above UK levels, productivity is also higher” (5). The causal relation between the two remains ambiguous here, an ambiguity repeated with the rhetorical suggestion that raising productivity will raise wages: “Raising annual trend growth by just 0.1% would mean the UK economy would be £35 billion larger in 2030 – the equivalent of approximately £1,100 extra for every household” (6).There is, obviously, a much more mediated relation between productivity and living standards, since productivity could increase without wages or living standards increasing if companies exploit their workers or public spending continues to be cut (France, for example, is more productive than the UK even though average wages are lower). Or wages and living standards might only increase for those being rewarded for increasing productivity in their workforce. Or, conversely, increases in productivity might be the effect of increases in wages and a better standard of living, so that the task of government would not be to increase productivity but primarily to increase living standards and wages. This would justify the government’s 2016 increase to the National Living Wage (which is included as point 9 in their framework for raising productivity, within the drivers entitled “A Dynamic Economy”), although other cuts, such as to Tax Credits, which will leave many working families worse off, contradict such a position.

In the other set of drivers to productivity listed as “Long Term Investment” is a section on Skills and Human Capital which connects these ideas on productivity back to HE. These sections of Fixing the foundations argues that:

The UK’s skills weaknesses – and failure to grow a serious system of respected employer-led professional and technical qualifications – are of such long standing, and such intractability, that only the most radical action can address them.

Many of the proposed changes will have an enormous impact on schools and FE, including changes to student qualifications, teaching training and pay in schools, an increase in compulsory apprenticeships (i.e. as an alternative to full-time education with the raising of the school leaving age to 18) closely connected to businesses, and the attack on funding for FE colleges. Those connected to HE from this July 2015 document are:

  • removal of student numbers cap
  • replacing maintenance grants with loans for new students from 2016-17 (repayment linked to income over £21k) and increase of maintenance loans to £8,200 a year (for those away from home and outside of London); consult on freezing repayment threshold at £21k for five years (i.e. students will have to pay back sooner if inflation rises, rather than allowing threshold to rise with inflation) and review the discount rate applied to student loans
  • consult on allowing loans for MA and PhD degrees
  • introduction of Teaching Excellence Framework, with successful institutions allowed to increase fees with inflation from 2017-8
  • allowing of more new providers institutions, by speeding up route to degree awarding powers and permitting providers that don’t yet have such powers to nonetheless offer degrees independently of their affiliation with institutions that do


Fulfilling our Potential

In the Green Paper on HE just published, Fulfilling our Potential, the last two proposals about the TEF and new providers are interarticulated and fleshed out in more detail. The website WONKHE has some detailed analyses by David Kernohan and Andrew McGettigan on these two proposals, and McGettigan also discusses it here.

In terms of their interarticulation between the TEF and new providers, the TEF is envisioned as another mechanism to introduce more of a consumer market into the HE sector (and with it, more alternative providers), since – along with uncapped student numbers – it will allow some institutions to generate further income by attracting more students (based on published TEF results) and charging higher fees (since good TEF results will allow universities to increase fees in line with inflation), while “lower quality providers [will] withdraw… from the sector, leaving space for new entrants, and raising quality overall” (19).

A significant portion of Fulfilling our Potential focuses on the streamlining and speeding up alternative providers to acquire degree-awarding powers and university title status, and Andrew McGettigan discusses these in detail here.

Teaching Excellence Framework

To summarize the main points of the paper regarding the TEF:

  • The government proposes merging different organisations regulating access, teaching funding, quality assurance and the TEF into a single body: OfS (Office for Students).
  • Level 1 of the TEF will begin in 2016-7, and require institutions to meet existing QA standards in order to increase their maximum fees in line with inflation for up to three years, beginning in 2017-8.
  • After that, institutions that wish to apply for Levels 2 or higher (up to Level 4) will need to be assessed and meet new – and as yet undecided – TEF metrics (with results published in spring 2017) to receive additional increases in fee caps and loan caps for three years from 2018-9.
  • TEF assessment will gradually develop towards a rolling 5-year cycle (unlike the REF, which has a fixed assessment period), with institutions bearing the cost of submissions. Assessments will be based on evidence submitted (without inspection visits) made by a panel of academic experts in learning and teaching, student representatives, and employer/professional representatives (and eventually be disciplinary specific with experts from within the discipline, aggregated across disciplines to give an overall institutional award).
  • Metrics supplied as evidence will be broken down and reported by disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups and this information will be used in making TEF assessments.These will most likely focus on teaching quality (student engagement, satisfaction and curriculum design), learning environment (strategies for training and career progression), and student outcomes and learning gain (skills and career readiness), so retention/continuation data, student satisfaction from NSS scores, and employment/destination data are likely to feature heavily.

David Kernohan has argued that,

Not only will the TEF not do what it has been designed to do, not only will it add to institutional burdens and spawn new internal processes, not only will it generate endless questions and challenges for whoever in the Office for Students (OfS) is forced to run it, it will also not reward institutions or excellent teaching staff in any meaningful way.

He points out that the proposed use of QA standards to determine Level 1 status is problematic (some institutions won’t have access to results by the TEF Level 1 deadline and 96% of institutions that were reviewed in 2014 passed) and that the financial incentives for acquiring other TEF Levels are minuscule (the differentiated caps at each level cannot exceed “real terms” increases, suggesting below inflation increases of currently 0.8% for anything below  the highest Level). As Andrew McGettigan concurs, “There’s not much incentive for universities to focus on teaching excellence” because “How will such a tiny reward compare to the administrative costs of submitting to the independent panel of TEF experts?” While it is tempting to imagine universities refusing to play the TEF game, it would also be disappointing to think a chance to improve and reward teaching might be overlooked. More likely, however, is that universities will none the less be compelled to enter and try to game the TEF, as they were with the REF, but not in relation to fee increases but increasing competition between institutes over student numbers, and this will nonetheless have little consequence for actual teaching excellence.

Of the joining together of access and quality assurance into one body, the claims that the TEF “should be contingent on having measures in place to facilitate the access and success of disadvantaged groups” linked to access agreements, and that “metrics in the TEF will be broken down and reported by disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups …So the TEF will recognise those institutions that do the most to welcome and support students from a range of backgrounds” (22) are still too vague to be meaningful in any way.

As already mentioned, and as Andrew McGettigan in particular has pointed out, the TEF is closely linked to ideas about increasing productivity through investment in so-called human capital, whilst trying to reduce public spending and so ensuring students take on the cost themselves as loans and that enough of them enter graduate-level jobs to ensure they earn enough to repay those loans:

The aim is to improve the teaching that students receive, which in turn should increase their productivity and help them secure better jobs and careers. It should enable employers to make more informed choices about the graduates they recruit, providing better understanding of the range of skills and knowledge they bring from their course, and deliver graduates who are more work ready following an active engagement in their studies. With higher returns, more graduates will be able to pay back more of their loans, reducing the amount that needs to be subsidised by the taxpayer in the longer term. This is on top of the benefits to taxpayers from having a stronger economy powered by a higher skilled workforce. (21)

Since no actual inspections of teaching excellence will be taking place, it is therefore hard to imagine that data regarding employment (and particularly graduate-level employment) won’t play a significant role in TEF assessment, alongside student satisfaction surveys (perhaps more specifically focused on whether students feel they have acquired specific skills and capacities and feel ready for work). As Andrew McGettigan suggests, the old banding system for residual teaching grants is also likely to give way, so that “funding will increasingly follow the creditworthiness of institutions and individuals, rather than the costs of course delivery”. On this model of human capital, investment in education (grants and loans against fees) would be more closely linked to the potential return through higher wages.

Alongside that, however, is the proposal that institutions being assessed for higher TEF levels will be encouraged, but not required, to adopt or integrate a 13-point Grade Point Average in their degree classification system (along with some evidence about tackling grade inflation) to supposedly produce a great variation of classifications and better delineate the labour market. Any claims about grade inflation become highly contentious when linked to discussions of teaching excellence, since absurdly one of the ways of demonstrating teaching-excellence – if a version of this proposal is adopted – could be to show there are less students acquiring Firsts and Upper Seconds. An outcome of this would be to lower student satisfaction scores, which would then come into conflict with any attempt to make degree classifications more robust and more differentiated. Obviously, without measures to tackle grade inflation such a differentiated scale will eventually become meaningless.

Fulfilling our Potential also envisages the TEF as a mechanism for a “rebalancing of the pull between teaching and research” (12) and specifically mentions recognizing “the relationship and mutual benefits between teaching, scholarship and research” (32). Since this distortion was itself partly produced through the introduction of the Research Excellence Framework, which is generally perceived to be an inefficient and inaccurate way of ranking and rewarding research activity, and since the Green Paper insists this rebalancing “should not be at the expense of research, but through additional incentives to drive up teaching quality” (12), there is likely to be further implications either for a more stream-lined REF (anticipated in the Green Paper), for a greater separation between teaching and research activity in universities (despite the claims that, the TEF “should bring better balance to providers’ competing priorities, including stimulating greater linkages between teaching and research…” (20)), or simply for further demands on the workload of academic staff. Although it is unlikely that the TEF will assess or reward good teaching in any meaningful way, relying instead on data taken from already existing surveys, there is a chance that its focus on the institutional conditions and structures of what it calls learning environment (surely teaching environment, if the focus is incentivizing teaching excellence) could re-prioritize the anxiety and isolation regarding teaching – as opposed to research excellence – in universities (as discussed by Elaine Showalter). However, as David Kernohan writes:

the real missed opportunity is the entire lack of incentive for staff who teach. Though the REF has many flaws, the need to be “ref-able” is an important driver for many academics. The individual research can see her activity reflect in the success of their department or institution, and benefit (on occasion) from the increased availability of research funding. With TEF there is no link between individual teaching performance and the assessment of teaching excellence.