Regulating Universities

Approaching 50% of young people now begin a university course, and often pay (or borrow) approaching £20,000 a year to do so, including tuition fees, accommodation, and living and other expenses. But they are often surprised by their limited amount of 'contact time' with their supposed teachers. (One student told me that her Russell Group university scheduled only one lecture and three or four exams in the third term (semester) of her first year there - presumably because the academics wanted to focus on research.) Students are also often surprised by large size of tutorial groups and therefore by the lack of personal attention from their tutors. There is therefore increasing interest in the quality of tuition and other aspects of university life, and this has led to greater regulatory intervention.

The latest regulatory regime is the ...

Teaching Excellence Framework

Professor David Weitzman provided some interesting background to this exercise, writing in 2017:

" ...we’ve been here before. Despite a range of processes to monitor educational quality, we have failed to crack the problem. We have monitored, reported and walked away, hoping that any quality improvement would persist. In the 1990s a system was introduced for evaluating the quality of teaching and learning in every subject at every university. It was probing, thorough and potentially valuable, but academics disliked it. Yielding to pressure, the monitoring body abandoned classroom observation and, later, all monitoring.

Quality is maintained only by maintaining monitoring. Improvements in quality merit lighter-touch monitoring for sustainability, and the interaction between teaching staff and their academic monitors can provide a healthy, two-way exchange of experience and good practice."

Some of the 2017 TEF assessments were controversial, apart possibly from the most surprising, the Bronze (lowest level) of award given to the London School of Economics:

But - commenting more generally on the TEF - some commentators recommended caution:

Dylan Wiliam:- "We do need to be concerned about the quality of teaching in our colleges and universities, but the results of the second round of the Teaching Excellence Framework add little to our understanding of the quality of teaching in our higher education institutions (“Elite universities exposed as second-rate”, June 22). Student satisfaction surveys are notoriously inaccurate as indications of the quality of teaching they have received — many studies show students prefer styles of teaching that significantly reduce how much they actually learn — and the TEF provides no data about whether students are in fact learning anything. Moreover, good postgraduate employment statistics do not take into account whether students are actually using anything they have learnt during their studies, or whether they have the flexibility to adapt to the changing world of work. Perhaps most worryingly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is actively inviting simplistic and meaningless comparisons by presenting complex, multi-dimensional data in terms of gold, silver and bronze awards. The TEF may raise the issue of teaching quality in universities, but as it stands will do little to improve it."

Research

Until the arrival of the TEF (see above), universities' reputations hung mainly on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise. They seem to have provided a reasonable rough-and-ready assessment of the strength of a university's research but had two key disadvantages. The first was that they encouraged volume over quality, and so triggered a torrent of mediocre academic papers. The second was that they led to students choosing well-regarded universities (well regarded, that is, for their research) oblivious of the fact that teaching quality might be very poor - which led in due course to the creation of the TEF.

Complaints

There is not much that an individual student can do if they are concerned about the quality of their education. All universities etc. have complaints processes, but few students will wish to make a fuss which could rebound on them if their professors and tutors feel unfairly criticised. And an isolated complaining student can easily be characterised as a poor learner.

There is an external complaints body - the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - and they seem to do a good job assessing around 1600 appeals each year against specific university decisions. But the OIA can only look at complaints which have been considered first by universities, and it is anyway not empowered or resourced to take a wider interest in the quality of higher education.

Access

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) seeks to ensure 'that everyone with the potential and ambition to succeed in higher education [has] equal opportunity to do so, whatever their income or background'. They accordingly aim to make sure that higher education establishments have measures in place to attract and support disadvantaged students.

 

Martin Stanley