Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

Posted June 26, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.

The Great Exodus

Posted June 19, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university


All of us in the United Kingdom, and universities specifically, are still struggling to discern what the practical implications of Brexit will be. We are not helped by the total confusion in the matter right now, with no clear consensus either in the UK government or the opposition as to what should be the desired outcome of the negotiations that began, sort of, in Brussels yesterday.

But as we wait to interpret the occasional clues thrown our way, there are some things we do know. One of these is that EU nationals who work in UK universities, unsure as to what their immigration status will be, are leaving in droves. According to the most recent report in the matter, 1,300 academics who are nationals of EU member states have left British universities in the last year, with Cambridge and Edinburgh the most seriously affected.

Universities are hosts to an international community of scholars. The United Kingdom has recklessly undermined this principle, by leaving unanswered for now the question of whether EU nationals (and indeed others) will still be welcome to work in UK higher education and by suggesting that non-British students may be subjected to tighter immigration restrictions. The excellence that is rightly claimed by British universities will, if this is not addressed very quickly, be fatally compromised. Higher education must not be part of the collateral damage of Brexit.

Lighting the darkness

Posted June 18, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: photography

Tags: ,

Amongst the things I like about living in the North-East of Scotland are mid-summer nights. From early June to mid-July it is never totally dark. Last night it was beautifully war, and I went for a country walk at around midnight, returning at 1 am. This is what I saw as I left the house.

Ythsie at midnight

And this was the sky on my return.

Ythsie at 1 am

This may not be the warmest place in Britain, but it is one of the most beautiful.


European obsessions: a rant

Posted June 12, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics


Here’s something that may surprise you. I share one key concern with the most extreme Brexiteers: Europe is the only key policy issue that matters right now for the UK. Everything else is an also-ran, not because nothing else is important, but because nothing else can be achieved or delivered unless we get the European issue right. And here of course I part company with the Brextremists, because their vision of the future is baloney, and if it were implemented would catastrophically damage the UK at every level and in every context.

For UK universities Brexit has become the issue which makes planning almost impossible. Because universities are essentially international institutions, links with other countries touch almost everything – and because Europe is nearer than anywhere else, it plays a disproportionate role.

But beyond universities many people still don’t realise that the European Union by now is part of almost everything. Of course some have persuaded themselves that this is oppressive, and some have rightly challenged aspects of EU regulation. But what they may not grasp is that there is no quick or easy alternative. Abandoning all things EU at short notice doesn’t leave us with a reassuringly British way of doing this, it leaves us with chaos capable of causing great and lasting damage.

I am hoping that recent political developments will make the UK’s politicians take a more sane approach. We will leave the European Union. But let it be on terms and through a process that protects the genuine interests of the country, rather than on terms that satisfy ideologues to whom the practical impact is either a mystery or irrelevant or both. And for the avoidance of doubt, ‘no deal’ is immeasurably worse than any ‘bad deal’ that could be imagined.


Posted June 6, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: ,

In the United Kingdom, we have all been shocked by recent events in Manchester and London – and perhaps heartened just a little by the extraordinary response of an undefeated and generous community in each location. But many of us are struggling to see how we can maintain that sense of togetherness, which is constantly threatened, not just by terrorists but by others who see such moments as a good occasion to rattle the cages, for example by talking of internment of innocent people or deliberately stirring divisiveness.

Most of us can do far too little in the face of this. But we can do something, and this something is central to the raison d’être of universities. We can remind ourselves and others that the liberal values of liberty, justice, knowledge and inclusiveness, but also the willingness to defend those values and continue to live them even when we face the threat of bombs and vans on pavement, matter. We must work for the survival and prospering of a community in which we all support each other, even in the face of setbacks. And we must remember that everyone, all over the world, deserves such a community.

There is much to be done at this difficult time.

Is it misguided to lower entry requirements for disadvantaged students?

Posted May 29, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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So-called ‘contextual admissions’ are becoming an increasingly accepted method for mitigating educational disadvantage: students without the benefit of an elite school education may be allowed lower entry requirements for their chosen university courses. However, the Independent reports that in a recent survey of Russell Group undergraduates, 63 per cent thought that ‘lower entry grades for disadvantaged students could be perceived as patronising’. Instead they thought that additional resources should be used to support potential students at secondary level so they can achieve better GCSE and A-level results (in England).

For once I would hope that this particular student view is not followed. Educational disadvantage is deeply rooted in socio-economic disadvantage, and this will not be corrected by spending a little more money on some A-level students. If we are serious about access to higher education, we need to look flexibly at the achievements students carry to the end of the secondary school experience; and if we have additional resources, we need to apply them to student support and care once they have entered university. That isn’t patronising, it is making a contribution to correcting injustice.

Students first?

Posted May 22, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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A survey in the United States of America has found that ‘nearly three out of five Americans believe that higher-education leaders put the long-term interests of their institutions first over the needs of students.’ This is, I suppose, a variant of the view held by some in this part of the world that managerialist higher education leaders prioritise business projects over educational excellence.

Whether or not that charge is justified, it is obviously true that universities are finding it necessary to implement a profitable business model to ensure institutional sustainability, and not just where income for institutions comes from private sources rather than from government funding. Tight public funding also requires universities to deploy entrepreneurial creativity.

The nirvana of universities receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer on a demand-led basis is not one we will experience again – it is an impossible scenario in a setting of mass higher education. A university business plan is not of itself a denial of academic values. But it does make it ever more important that institutional values are clearly expressed, reinforced and widely applied. The needs of students must always be one of the most important; if we marginalise this, we have lost all purpose. And if students believe we have done so, we have an urgent need to put that right.