by Laura Potts
Last week, the first set of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) rankings were released for 2017. The TEF is fairly complicated and students are rarely informed of how it works, or the possible implications it holds for the future of education. In short, it is a framework of metrics or measures introduced by the Tory government, ostensibly to assess teaching in higher education institutions in England. These metrics categorise two areas: student satisfaction and graduate earnings / employability. A lot of the data comes from the National Student Survey that final year students are often pressured to take part in. This years’ rankings gave some unexpected results for some of the UK’s most prestigious institutes, with many not doing as well as expected – only 8 of the 21 elite Russell Group universities were awarded ‘Gold’. This suggests that we should be cautious about taking the TEF results as accurate representations of institutions.
Our local universities scored well in the rankings. The University of East Anglia scored Silver while Norwich University of the Arts received a Gold award. Personally, as a student of NUA I do believe the teaching standard is very high, with great access to tutors and lecturers who have extensive subject-specific knowledge. However, this varies greatly between departments – some are very high for student satisfaction and others fall much lower. League tables can shed a new light on less prestigious universities, and can shake up the existing hierarchy. This can open access to different routes for students by undercutting the argument that smaller arts universities, for example, are less successful than larger, more well-known establishments. Institutions such as NUA, whose importance is not readily recognised, have the opportunity to step forward and be presented in a new way.
Schemes such as the TEF add to the ability to reduce education to profit margins
Although the awards can recognise the personal success of many hard working teachers and lecturers, the pattern of rankings like these are complicated and we must not shy away from working to fully understand the intentions underlying them. Prospective students should take time to look more deeply into their preferred institution and the specific department they will be entering, not just where they fall on these scales. Use of this sort of system obscures the personality of an educational facility and renders it more on the business side, as a series of measurements.
There are also further problems with the ranking system. Universities that score Gold can capitalise on it to become more elitist in their outlook, presenting themselves as ‘better value for money’. Although amendments to the HE bill have rejected the connection between TEF scores and the ability to raise tuition fees for now, if the Conservatives stay in power there is every chance that they will attempt to reintroduce this measure. To do so would fly in the face of all values of equality, fair access and progress.
‘We do not need to govern our society in the service of private profits’. A simple truth, but one that the powerful seem unaware of. Privatisation is at the forefront of this government’s approach, and is rightly feared by most of wider society as well as the student population. Schemes such as the TEF add to the ability to reduce education to profit margins at a time when a new outlook on education is vital.
The issue is much larger than the individual student or individual institution, but nonetheless many choose to ignore the league tables or boycott them. In the US some Law schools staged (unsuccessful) boycotts of the Sauder and Espeland rankings systems in 2009. Similarly, a total of 26 UK student unions boycotted the National Student Survey this year to protest the possible link between TEF and tuition fees. Although these tactics are bold and commendable, a more organised front would be more effective at taking back the power from the government to decide what our educational institutions should be.
As in all things in life, there is a vitality in looking deeper into the true meaning and implications of government initiatives such as the TEF. On the one hand, there is a place for categorisation and analysis of institutions. However the TEF metrics reduces the university to quantitative data of questionable accuracy. In reality, our institutions are so much more than satisfaction percentages and graphs of graduate jobs. They open innumerable creative opportunities to thousands of students. Ensuring support for open access and diversity within our education is the most vital fight against elitism, and a step towards a more equal future.
Featured image credit: HEFCE
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