Comment: Higher education green paper: an emerging consensus?

In response to the new higher education green paper, Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett says we should treat the new Teaching Excellence Framework seriously and continue to develop our teaching in the ways our students need.

Higher education green paper: an emerging consensus?

By Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett

This week I sat around a table with a dozen Sheffield graduates, ranging from a young woman who has just finished her degree and secured her first job, to experienced professionals in their forties and early fifties. The conversation turned to their experience of university and particularly of teaching. What, I asked them, mattered most to them?

The answers were varied and may surprise some who are currently trying to change how we measure teaching quality in universities. The key message was that courses had been genuinely challenging... and that was a great preparation for what had followed. Lecturers and professors had pressed students hard, demanded essays on time, expected independent study and effective team working. All vital skills in later life.

But they also spoke of encouragement. Of university teachers who knew and cared about them, who remained the source of inspiration and warm memories. And they stressed how beyond this, the wider reputation of the institution had opened doors. Many had drawn on this reputation as they had worked around the world. They knew they had benefitted from what several said was 'one of the most important choices of my life'.

Following the publication of the higher education green paper with its recommendations on the measurement of teaching excellence, fees, marketisation and private provision, I have now had the opportunity to talk to a number of our students as well as some parents, and I thought I should share some of their reactions. The sample is small, but the emerging picture fairly clear.

The main reaction I have seen so far is a concern that we think of students simply as customers, rather than partners in an important part of their lives. University is not simply a preparation for a perfect future existence in employment, it is an important time of development and change. It is three to four years, crucial and exciting years of a person's life. Or, in my case, my whole life!

But students and parents alike know that they cannot afford to take a purely philosophical view of education. They are also clear that they want us to take the issues raised in the paper with utmost seriousness.

Questions about value are no longer 'academic'. Students and families are now explicitly paying a significant amount for higher education beyond general taxation and need, and want, to be fully aware of their possible paths to a career. Many families will not have considered such a major investment for anything other than buying their own home, yet the return often seems intangible. What will they own at the end of the repayment period? Clearly the way we approach issues of employability is now impossible to ignore.

In fact, we totally agree on this and we are always looking for ways to make our University a better place to build the skills, knowledge and confidence to be a success in whatever career our students wish to pursue. Our Careers Service and academic departments are constantly looking for ways to help give our graduates vital advantages in a competitive employment market.

Graduate salaries and teaching excellence

Yet measuring the quality of teaching and the success of our students primarily against graduate salaries is another matter, and both parents and young people want reassurance, and sense the danger of unintended consequences.

The path to highly-paid and secure employment often relies as much on continuing family support and a network of connections as a good degree alone. There are also vast differences in subjects to consider. Some essential areas of study leading to vital and honourable work, create careers in teaching, social work or nursing. No matter how good the teaching, the truth is that remuneration in these roles is in a completely different league than areas such as finance.

Yet we do not want to simply train a cohort of bankers, nor is that what the nation needs. Metrics - even well-meaning ones - are full of traps for the uninitiated in the possible misinterpretation of data. Our students are also concerned that we could start to see them purely in terms of their future earnings capability.

Contact hours and feedback

Students and parents also want us to reflect on the parts of the student satisfaction surveys which point to problems. We already know what these are in individual areas of study and I know departments are working thoughtfully on them.

Contact hours and feedback are most often highlighted as an area of concern, and I have sometimes thought there should be ways to make these more straightforward to address. My own view is that time to reflect on a particular student's work, and then tailor feedback to their needs, is one of the most important and difficult of duties in our profession. When it is successful, it is simply wonderful to see the positive change in an individual. But this can be a fraught process, with a student feeling short-changed. In any case, it takes a lot of time, and time is the most precious of things in our lives. Making yet more hoops for academics to jump through will not help.

Our student sabbatical officers are, however, even-handed, understand that one size does not fit all, and want us to celebrate the great teaching they have seen around the University. We are planning how to do this with them, so we can learn from the best, rather than simply respond to the worst anecdotes.

Even the demand for increased contact hours and the desire of many parents to make their offspring visibly work harder for the money are greeted with caution. Rather than legitimate concern, our students tell me they quickly see Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) performance as a way to increase the fees they have to pay and not a way to improve what they get.

Perhaps it is just our students who have such a long term view about what education and life are about. But I doubt it. I think many students regard themselves as being much more than simply customers.

Parents will have a different view of our students' lives and often focus on whether we are testing and challenging the junior members of their families in the right way. Contact hours are a perennial concern and one we sometimes struggle with.

Again it is time consuming and we look for ways to reduce the load on busy academics. We have failed to explain why academics are really busy, or how students are genuinely pushed. That a profound learning experience may not only be in a lecture, but in an experience or enterprise or engagement which takes what has been learned out of the lab or library, and into the world.

Yet the suspicion remains that we are overcharging, despite the reality that often costs are subsidised. We are still seen as pursuing our research for selfish ends. This is simply untrue but the slur is pervasive and often retailed by lazy commentators. It ignores the fact that research can and does enrich much teaching. And parents, students and graduates all stress that the overall reputation of their university is a net asset when they add our crest to their CVs and job applications.

Valuing teachers

So, I have been reflecting on what we do to genuinely support and celebrate teaching as the crucial vocation, without uncritically accepting some of the more questionable elements of what is clearly a move to greater marketisation.

One key question is how teaching is valued in both status and reward.

Speaking honestly, we all know that this has been a changing picture across universities, and often the result of the introduction of previous national metrics. In my earlier career in Oxford, the title of Tutorial (Teaching) Fellow was core and aspirational. Historically, research output was not the centre of academic life, with even truly brilliant scholars producing only one or two great works in a lifetime, unaffected by the timescales of a Research Excellence Framework (REF).

I have been reflecting on what we do to genuinely support and celebrate teaching as the crucial vocation, without uncritically accepting some of the more questionable elements of what is clearly a move to greater marketisation.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

Later 'research-led universities' clearly prioritised research assessment performance and citations. Some of us have always felt that this had inherent risks, and even Gareth Roberts, who was the author of the modern Research Assessment Exercise, questioned how measurement would affect the experiment itself. Yet, when I was first interviewed to become a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England board a number of years ago, my comment that we had perhaps over-emphasised research at the expense of teaching, led to a polite decline of my help.

Years later, things have changed. You will know that in Sheffield we have had, for some time, a promotion route with teaching at the core. The appointment of the first Teaching Professors was a shock to some, a cause of celebration to others. Our Senate has also commended Teaching Fellows and our Students' Union have given academic awards for teaching and support in all the key areas covered by the TEF, and many others which might be helpfully added. We will be asking all these genuine experts for their insights in what matters, and I have asked our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching to lead this vital work in close collaboration with our Students' Union as we formally respond to the green paper.

Teaching and learning happens in many places. Our students see that this experience of a quality education is also delivered by truly exceptional librarians, lab technicians and personal tutors. Our Union President reminded me that, in addition to the challenge he received in what was the top department in the country for his subject, he was mostly helped and inspired by a PhD student who had recently trod his own academic path, and knew just how to help.

All of these elements make up what our students truly need along the way, and what we are duty - not only monetarily - bound to provide, as we prepare a new generation of young people for their own future and what society needs.

So how will we respond to the TEF?

We will almost certainly face a new raft of measurement and regulation, and we will treat this seriously and try to use it to improve where we can. We need to continue to develop our teaching in the ways our students need.

But we must think hard about how to express the truth about great teaching, in ways which will not be conveyed by ideological critics simply as excuses. It won't be easy. But anything less would be a dereliction of our duty to our academic ideals, and to those young people who are so much more than customers, rather full members of our University and our chief gift to the future.