Submission by Politics student accepted by Parliamentary Select Committee
Our ground-breaking Parliamentary Studies module gives students expertise in how parliaments operate, bringing in politicians and parliamentary staff to seminar classes. Undergraduate student Alice Day wrote her course-work in the style of a submission of evidence to a parliamentary select committee, as a response to the Business, Innovation and Skills inquiry into ‘Assessing Quality in Higher Education’. She went on to submit it to the enquiry, and found it was actually accepted and published, and will be used in their deliberations!
You can read Alice's account here:
One of the modules I study as part of my degree is Parliamentary Studies. Instead of writing a traditional essay for coursework for this module we write a submission of evidence to a select committee inquiry. We can choose an ongoing inquiry, with the opportunity to say something new, different and imaginative, or choose a previous inquiry which would come with the valuable benefit of hindsight.
I decided to write my submission on the current Business, Innovation and Skills inquiry into ‘Assessing Quality in Higher Education’. The inquiry focused on the government’s plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the impact it could have on quality assessment, students, academics and universities. One of the main concerns that arose from the proposed framework came from the government’s productivity plan which stated their intentions for those ‘offering high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation’. As a current student, any potential framework created could affect my university experience so I felt I had something insightful to say on the issue.
In my submission my main arguments centred on students being the best judges of quality within higher education institutions and how, if we are to have some form of quality assessment, it must maintain students as its core judges. I noted the benefits of having comparative evidence of teaching quality to inform potential applicants, but the importance of this reflecting the real picture. Thus, I highlighted the dangers of using metrics to assess quality, as it could distort results, through failure to reflect the diversity in teaching practices within departments and universities and essentially standardising the process.
Furthermore, I argued that such metrics would financially incentivise universities to tailor their teaching practices to those of the metrics in order to receive a positive evaluation, thus stifling innovative practice and restrict the unique approaches to teaching used by institutions. Additionally, I highlighted my concern with fee raising powers in that they would ultimately treat students like consumers, having a detrimental effect on individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, restricting the best ‘quality’ institutions to those who can afford it.
My submission also touched upon the debate between quality teaching and quality research, emphasising the need to ensure research is not affected by improvements to teaching, as often the best researchers are also the best teachers.
From conducting my research to inform my submission, I have developed my understanding of the difficulties in finding information about parliamentary proceedings. There were significant challenges around penetrating internal workings of parliament as an outsider. Most politics occurs behind the scenes and it is difficult to find substantial evidence of how issues rise on the political agenda. I had to read between the lines of different reports and previous inquiries and to unearth the real driving forces behind the inquiry I had to use research techniques that I was inexperienced in using.
A further challenge was mastering the culture of Parliamentary writing. Approaching a piece of work with a very different form of writing meant I had to undertake translational research to ensure I was using the appropriate format. Having to write using non-academic language felt unnatural, going against everything I have learnt and being taught in my three years of university. It was difficult to make concise arguments, testing my skills in translating pieces of work for different audiences. Furthermore, I also had to overcome the trade-off between what to include and what to leave out. The gamble of saying something risky in my submission and it being published against my name forever and potentially having to back up my argument at oral evidence restricted what I wanted to say.
But my submission still needed to be unique and sufficiently interesting to get noticed. This influenced the framing of my argument, leading to a more pragmatic stance. Ideally I would have argued that although quality of teaching is very important, it is not the governments role to intervene in this area. As a student paying £9,000 per year I also found it hard not to say anything too extreme in relation to the plans for fee-raising powers to be associated with the TEF. I focused my submission around how a TEF would affect students and how quality teaching really affects universities. As a current student I felt this was an angle that the committee has so far failed to fully consider. There was a further trade-off between breadth and depth, thus I chose to frame my arguments around three of the questions from the terms of reference provided by the committee.
Undertaking this piece of work has led me to question much of what I have studied during my degree. We often discuss potential policies and theories around how the government should behave. But in reality because change is a slow, complicated process, it is essential to shift the discourse to enable government, media and public support for the issue, if one really wants change. Therefore, I have gained greater understanding of the policy process, reigniting my concerns about the difficulties of securing political change and that it is essential to be pragmatic in the changes you seek.
Although select committee inquiries provide points of access, they are ultimately restricted to those who can write in this particular way and understand the covert nature of our political system. For the public to truly understand and engage with politics they have to embrace these underlying conventions in our system, which is unlikely to change, given that these conventions exist. However, given the rise in anti-politics in society, we may see changes in how parliament and the public interact and how policy is influenced. Furthermore, as the location of parliament within Westminster is under review, perhaps a different building will facilitate a more open culture, enabling the public to influence politics more effectively.