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?


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