quit moaning about the TEF

The Role specification: Subject Pilot and Year Three Panel members and assessors for the TEF has been published. As ever, HEFCE claims that TEF “is a scheme for recognising excellent teaching, in addition to existing national quality requirements… It provides information to help prospective students choose where to study.” Now, as we move towards subject-level TEF, HEFCE is looking to recruit another 100 academics and students to work on subject pilot panels. I assume that they will also provide some form of deliberative, distributed leadership on the on-going implementation of the TEF in their own institutions.

I mention this move to widen academic labour’s complicity in the implementation of the TEF, because it reminds me that last year, in response to a call on the National Teaching Fellow listserv for positive engagement, I wrote about resistance: “It feels important for me as an NTF neither to consider nor to do this work.”

In part this is because I refuse to have my work as an NTF, and my professional practice, co-opted by a Government that is seeking to damage further the idea of public higher education. The TEF is a means to further the twin agendas of marketisation and privatisation in the sector, which emerging through the White Paper fundamentally damage social mobility and social justice. I simply cannot lend my intellectual and social capital to it. Some of this rationale is set out in the Alternative White paper:https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/awp-introduction/

My second reason issue is that UCU is currently in dispute over pay, including working to contract. This dispute is focusing our attention on issues of overwork and anxiety/mental health problems amongst staff, increasing casualisation and precarious employment, and gender disparities in remuneration. Many of us resigned as external examiners in support of this campaign (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/26/why-we-are-resigning-as-external-examiners). Out of solidarity with colleagues on the HE single pay spine fighting for better pay and conditions I cannot justify doing this work.

The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.

There is plenty of other stuff that I have written against the TEF. However, my endpoint that the TEF will damage both the quality of teaching and learning and the relationships between teachers and students, and that far from enhancing and celebrating teaching (through a culture of promoting excellence) it will solely focus upon the commodification of university life through the proxy of student labour market outcomes, has been amplified. This was emphasised both in Jo Johnson’s speech to UniversitiesUK on 7 September 2017, and also in Chris Husbands’ keynote at the DMU learning and teaching conference yesterday.

Johnson’s speech, titled Embracing accountability and promoting value for money in Higher Education, reiterates the core of the TEF lessons learned summary policy document. In this, strengthening accountability through the integration of rich data about graduate employment (using LEO data), alongside a new supplementary metric on grade inflation, emerges at the same time that the reliance on NSS data is to be reduced. For Johnson, there is a need to pay lip-service to the humane values that underpin higher education, whilst pivoting the re-engineering of higher education around surplus value.

The pursuit of knowledge is the hallmark of a civilized society and for many people a sufficient end for the higher education system in and of itself.

That said, we must accept that the transition from an elite to a mass system of higher education brings with it an expectation of a strong economic return too.

Johnson argues that the current and previous governments’ re-engineering of the system will enable him to support academic and academic leaders in rejecting “the arguments of the statists and the pessimists”, and in justifying the continued existence of English universities through a process of on-going reform. There is no alternative, and “we should welcome the scrutiny and embrace accountability.” However, as Catherine Boyd and David Kernohan note, this “moves the TEF away from something that is done on behalf of applicants towards being something that is done for reasons of policy implementation.” They highlight:

For those who have argued that salary outcomes are a crude or inappropriate measure of teaching excellence, this is bad news. Alongside the halving of the NSS weighting, it looks like the TEF is becoming more focused on student labour market outcomes than teaching excellence.

There was always an inevitability about this transition away from our recent history of quality enhancement across the sector, towards a new normal that subjugates teaching under the rule of money framed by new public management/performance management. Thus, a range of academics no longer discuss the politics of the TEF, rather the focus is how to make it more objective or efficient. This is teaching becoming more efficiently unsustainable beyond the market. Simon Marginson argues:

for better and for worse we live in an era of performance management in higher education. This is dictated ultimately by public accountability, and it is an unanswerable requirement.

There is no space in this argument to deliberate over “outcomes in fundamental areas” or “educational and social objectives”. The rule of money, amplified through the commodification of higher education, becomes the only “viable method for assessing teaching and learning”. This, of course, refuses the history of evaluation rooted in institutional audits, or other models for enhancement-led institutional review (for instance in Scotland).

Marginson continues:

The key to achieving the best possible and least damaging performance management system, is to create a virtuous circle between real outcomes, performance measure and the resulting competitive position.

Outcomes, performance management and competition are the rules through which academic labour is to be kettled.

There is no point in looking for alternative narratives or leadership from senior management within institutions. Janet Beer, the new President of UUK, broadly accepted Johnson’s stated position and argued that universities need to make the case for their work more clearly. Her predecessor, Julia Goodfellow previously noted that “the challenge will be to develop the system to ensure the information is properly communicated and helpful to students in the decision making process”. Effectively, it’s the only game in town so we all better quit moaning and get on with explaining ourselves more effectively. In this moment, the kettle tightens: money in the form of student and institutional debt as a key input; and money in the form of student outcomes/salaries as the key output. This is our teaching excellence.

So yesterday at DMU’s annual learning and teaching conference, the TEF chair, Chris Husbands, reiterated the key points from his post-match analysis of the TEF in a talk entitled 10 lessons from the TEF. The takeaways were a reiteration that: first, democratic accountability is conditioned through value-for-money and efficiencies; second, irrespective of contestation over datasets and outcomes, processes like the NSS and the TEF enable institutional leaders to focus minds on quality improvement; and third, it could be worse (we could end up with the equivalent of Ofsted). There is no space here, and no takeaway, for a discussion of alternative, dialogic processes or strategies. To reiterate, this is the only game in town so we all better quit moaning and get on with it.

Husbands’ 10 lessons focused upon the TEF:

  • measuring the things that matter to students (work, retention, assessment, quality of teaching);
  • being outcomes focused, rather than measuring the things that universities are good at talking about like changes to inputs or processes;
  • enabling metrics and benchmarks to deliver hypotheses and judgements;
  • enabling judgements to be made about strategic clarity, in the relationship between policy, practice and outcomes;
  • focusing minds on impact rather than describing initiatives;
  • catalysing coherent strategies for improvement;
  • shining a light on data (il)literacy, and the impact of innovation on students;
  • supporting analyses of genuine student involvement, embedded at all levels;
  • refusing to accept context as an excuse or point of analysis/challenge for poor performance; and
  • demonstrating that excellence and diversity are interconnected.

He ended by talking about the importance of the subject-level TEF for the investment decisions of students and their families.

Intrigued by his starting point in the strategic value of NSS data that could be triangulated with other datasets, and the importance he placed on situating the TEF against the sector’s history of quality enhancement initiatives, I asked the following:

Following Jo Johnson’s speech to UUK, with the inclusion of LEO data and the reduction in NSS weighting in future iterations of TEF, it appears that salary outcomes are to be used as the measure of teaching excellence. Are you worried [not concerned but worried] that the TEF is becoming more focused on student labour market outcomes than teaching excellence?

[c.f. Andrew McGettigan’s worked on the Treasury view of HE, and this report in the Times Higher Education about reinforcement of sector hierarchies]

He replied: “I’m going to give you the politician’s answer”. He stated that his role was to ensure that the TEF process as defined by government and HEFCE could be robustly implemented; that it was his job to deliver the institutional TEF.

Here I am reminded that I once wrote against a neoliberal curriculum, about who has voice/is silenced and the role of leadership.

It is increasingly less certain that institutional leaders, Vice-Chancellors or Vice-Principals, will challenge the dominant narratives of the State, in terms of the marketisation of higher education. Acting as CEOs the logic is that they will attempt to compete rather than co-operate. Thus, in the UK, University leadership was quiet over the threats of violence made by the State against students who protest, and we witnessed banning orders being sought against protest on campus, PhD students being suspended for protesting via poetry, and elected student representatives being removed from University committees for protesting. This enactment of the University as an enclosed space for dissent is a logical outcome emerging from the rhetoric of competition.

In this process of enclosure, we might ask whether our academic leaders will be able to work communally or co-operatively to roll-back the neoliberal discourse that commodifies all of our social life inside the market, and which kettles free debate about what is legitimate. We might ask then what is the role of the academic as activist in developing alternative discourses that argue for a re-humanisation of educational life and activity.

Game over. Thanks for playing.


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