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Not Learning From Error: Teaching Excellence Failure

Not Learning From Error: Teaching Excellence Failure

By Charles Kowalski


The REF was meant to measure research excellence, but is far from rational process that enhances research. Now a metrics based ‘teaching REF’ – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – has been announced by the Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson, following on from a manifesto commitment. As Bill Readings argued though: ‘all departments of the University can be urged to strive for excellence, since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to its emptiness. [… Indeed,] Cornell University Parking Services recently received an award for “excellence in parking”’ (1996: 23-24). The empty meaning of decontextualised ‘excellence’ is no barrier to neoliberal audit culture.

In the recent highly regressive budget which saw grants for poorer students replaced with loans, the Tories announced that the fee cap could rise in-line with inflation for those institutions that ‘could offer high teaching quality’. This will go some small way to pleasing the Vice Chancellors. Universities UK called for the ability for universities to charge more than £9000, arguing that the real value of this cap had been eroded by inflation, even though inflation is low because of austerity. In the year that saw the trebling of the tuition fee, the average pay of VCs went up 8.1%. Johnson though is heading for excellence in flimflamming. Whilst promising ‘incentives’ to improve teaching he rowed back on these being financial.

What metrics the TEF would attempt to measure ‘excellence’ with is yet to be decided, with Willetts just noting that ‘quite an eclectic mix’ may be needed, presumably in recognition of the elusive nature of ‘excellence’. If discipline specific tests are used then academics may well end up, under heavy managerial pressure, teaching to the test and getting students to memorise model answers. Moreover, if tests are to be discipline specific then it could be argued that moving from A levels to 2:1 or 1st class degree level work ought in itself to indicate progress. Given this, either the test as a meaningful measure is redundant or, if the degree grades are not to be trusted, the entire system of university marking is not trusted, in which case one would have a discipline based test sitting alongside a system of discipline based education that was implicitly not trusted.

To make the measures scientific there is talk of using grade point averages (GPAs) so numbers can be recorded and graphs drawn, praise given, admonitions administered, and departments closed, on an ‘objective’ basis. Seeing the GPA as a gold standard created by the bureaucrats’ stone ignores the fact it just translates existing grades into a more bureaucratic form, in which case the existing grades would function as indicators of progress and any extra test would be pointless. Alternatively, there may be general tests of ability independent of disciplines. Again there could be teaching to the test, making it redundant. Or, if it were like an IQ test then, leaving aside problems raised with IQ testing, it would only end up measuring a putatively static ability.

One stated objective of the TEF is encourage ‘cognitive gain’ with ‘distance travelled’ being important, to reward (somehow) institutions that took students from disadvantaged backgrounds and significantly enhanced their cognitive ability. The Tories state that by 2020 they want to double the number of disadvantaged students in higher education relative to 2009. However, removing grants and raising fees may well put people off, given the staggering debt that would be amassed. Further, the repayment cap is now frozen at £21,000 meaning that the real rate at which graduates begin repayment will reduce with inflation. It is also possible the interest rate may be hiked and 25 year cut off extended, as McGettigan (2013) notes.

Employment opportunities were also mentioned as one possible measure of excellence. This may well serve the interests of the Russell Group who have many students from privileged backgrounds tending to go into privileged positions in the labour market, which may happen on the basis of their accent and mannerism. Any fee increase will be least off-putting for such students, especially those from fee paying schools who parents are used to paying a lot more than £9000 a year in fees. Meanwhile, other institutions will face a de facto funding cut. This is in a context where working class students with higher grade A levels are less likely to apply to Russell Group universities. So, posh students may get posh jobs having gone to posh universities, which may be able to charge more, with bright but not posh students going to universities that may be facing funding cuts, in a system supposedly designed to deliver teaching excellence especially to disadvantaged students.

Perhaps though the method for raising social mobility here, other than redefining child poverty and disadvantage by fiat, is to put the emphasis on the customer purchasing the most useful type of educational capital. If they fail to invest in themselves with the ‘correct’ educational capital then under or unemployment is their fault, with the reducing welfare state then taking this into account. This may apply to disciplines as well as university ‘brands’, with the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan stating recently that non STEM subjects led to significant labour market disadvantage. Interestingly though there is evidence that philosophical discussions about truth, fairness and kindness (things that may be good as ends in themselves) are also a useful means to improve literary and maths in primary school teaching, contrary to the demonisation of subjects that are deemed not to be instrumentally useful for business, in a world that wants children manufactured into corporate drones. Repeating model answers in STEM subjects and hoping to pass the posh test may be the way to achieving neoliberal excellence in higher education, with those who ‘fail’ working on zero hours contracts as ‘parking excellence associates’, parking the cars of the fat cat VCs, going forward into the new Victorian era.




McGettigan, A. 2013. The Great University Gamble. London: Pluto.

Readings, B. 1996. The University In Ruins. London: Harvard University Press.


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