The government is obsessed with the quality of higher education provision. It is so obsessed, because it figured that any further increases in fees will not be accepted without sugar-coating them in the language of ‘excellence’.
Little is said however about the working conditions of the teaching staff themselves. We want the best experience for our students (as a sector) yet we subcontract huge proportions of our teaching to PhD students and casualised staff on zero-hours contracts. The logic is to look fancy, pay the big professors enough to have a lifestyle akin to that of their richest friends, bill students through the nose for everything, while those at the bottom (of the pay scale and of respect) actually do the work.
In a way, it has always been like this, but the TEF elevates these trends to really abhorrent levels. Here is what Sally Hunt, UCU president had to say about it:
The government’s higher education green paper which was published last week. A green paper is usually a consultative document issued prior to legislation. In this case however, there is little doubt that the government has already made up their mind on the central idea in the green paper which is the creation of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The stated aim of the ‘TEF’ is to measure the quality of teaching and allow any institution whose overall teaching quality is found to meet or exceed the set standards to increase their tuition fees incrementally each year above and beyond the current cap. The ‘TEF’ will apply to any publicly funded higher education whether it takes place in universities or in a further education institution.
Initially the government proposes to use such measures as National Student Survey (NSS) data, graduate employment figures, and information on student retention to determine whether institutions have done well enough to be allowed to charge higher fees. Ultimately, by linking the quality of teaching to tuition fees, the government hopes to create a competitive environment in which universities compete for students based on their TEF scores.
There is plenty wrong with trying to adopt this market-based approach within education but what exercises me most is the almost complete absence from the debate around teaching quality of the teacher themselves and the conditions in which they work. Higher education is essentially a human endeavour and the working conditions of staff are by definition also the conditions that the students learn in. Who, in that context, could argue that teaching quality is not important? But in truth the only sustainable way to address the issue is to radically change the employment model which universities and colleges use to provide teaching under which more than 40% of all teachers are on one form of temporary contract or another.
I made this point forcefully to the minister Jo Johnson on UCU’s behalf when I met him before the green paper was published and it is worth noting that in response the government is now suggesting that one future measure of quality might be the proportion of staff on permanent terms and conditions. For me, how an institution treats its staff is the test of whether it is committed to enhancing the experience of its students and I will continue to press this point with politicians, employers and civil servants alike on your behalf.
There is plenty more in the green paper, including dangerous proposals to allow private providers to get even easier access to public funds and I wrote to members of parliament and peers this week to brief them on our concerns. You can read what the union said in our message to politicians here.