Qual­ity points

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

Mary Curnock Cook’s ad­dress to the an­nual gen­eral meet­ing of the Coun­cil for the De­fence of Bri­tish Uni­ver­si­ties (CDBU) was ro­bust and provoca­tive (“Pri­ori­tise stu­dents or face more reg­u­la­tion, says ex­ucas head”, News, 1 Fe­bru­ary). I should like to com­ment on some of the is­sues men­tioned in your re­port.

1) With re­gard to the need to shift pri­or­i­ties from re­search to teach­ing, as Dorothy Bishop noted in her re­sponse to Curnock Cook, it is un­fair to blame aca­demics for any im­bal­ance be­cause (a) many of them show real ded­i­ca­tion to teach­ing, and (b) it is the fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives im­posed through the re­search ex­cel­lence frame­work that have skewed the pri­or­i­ties of in­sti­tu­tions in favour of re­search. 2) The CDBU has cam­paigned vig­or­ously against the mar­keti­sa­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion for a num­ber of rea­sons. One is the risk in­her­ent in en­cour­ag­ing a pro­lif­er­a­tion of low­cost, low­qual­ity, for­profit providers; another is the ten­dency for such a sys­tem to gen­er­ate a tran­sient teach­ing force, which can­not be in the best in­ter­ests of stu­dents. Third, it is mis­guided to in­fer from the fact that higher ed­u­ca­tion is now fi­nanced sub­stan­tially through stu­dent loans that it should there­fore be treated as a con­sumer good.

3) To ar­gue that those who crit­i­cise the teach­ing ex­cel­lence frame­work for its lack of cred­i­ble met­rics should sug­gest some other way of mea­sur­ing teach­ing qual­ity is to miss the point of the crit­i­cisms. The main­te­nance of high stan­dards by the aca­demic pro­fes­sion de­pends on the free­dom of aca­demics to make in­de­pen­dent judge­ments about the teach­ing and assess­ment of stu­dents in their sub­ject area.

4) In its re­sponse to the con­sul­ta­tion on the func­tions of the Of­fice for Stu­dents, the CDBU chal­lenged the use of the phrase “value for money” as a proxy for the qual­ity of teach­ing pro­vided be­cause it clouds the is­sue. Per­cep­tions of what stu­dents say they want are no sub­sti­tute for the in­de­pen­dent judge­ment of aca­demics on what stu­dents need to do in order to achieve the level of qual­i­fi­ca­tion to which they as­pire.

Let’s hope that the OFS, once its mo­dus operandi has been clar­i­fied, will suc­ceed in dis­cour­ag­ing poor­qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion while al­low­ing in­sti­tu­tions that pose lower risks to stu­dents to flour­ish; that the in­de­pen­dent re­view of the TEF re­quired un­der the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Re­search Act will take us to­wards a qual­ity as­sur­ance regime that does en­joy the broad con­fi­dence of the aca­demic pro­fes­sion; and that, un­der the new min­is­ter for uni­ver­si­ties, the HE sec­tor may con­tinue to pro­vide the high qual­ity and di­ver­sity of higher ed­u­ca­tion that has been the ba­sis of its out­stand­ing in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion in the re­cent past.

David Mid­g­ley

Pro­fes­sor of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture and in­tel­lec­tual his­tory

St John’s Col­lege

Cam­bridge

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