New Teaching Excellence Framework Shows the Power of Marketing

DBIS Green Paper snip_opt
“This document sets out proposals for how the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework will deliver better value for money for students, employers and taxpayers. It also sets out plans to drive social mobility by further increasing higher education participation by those from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.”
– 6 November 2015

The political will to implement particular policies often precedes the publicly acknowledged motives for the pursuit of these policies. Such motives may be decided upon when firm decisions towards a particular course of political action have long been made, so as to equip it with a sound, widely acceptable justification. This insight into political marketing might help to explain many of the higher education policies that have been adopted by recent British governments, as well as the rhetoric surrounding these policies. The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework is a case in point.

In November 2015, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills presented policy proposals, which, according to the department’s website, involve four elements

  • “introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework that will deliver better value for money for students, employers and taxpayers
  • increase access and success in higher education participation for those from disadvantaged and under-represented groups
  • create a new single gateway for entry and create a create common system for all providers
  • establish a new Office for Students to promote the student interest and ensure value for money, and to reduce the regulatory burden on the sector”

The centerpiece of these proposals is the Teaching Excellence Framework, an intricate national audit of the teaching quality on whose results universities’ funding and reputation might be made contingent. Student satisfaction scores in already existing audits, such as the National Student Survey, loom large among the indicators that might be used to measure teaching quality (1, 2).

Nehring Corporate bugWhile these policy proposals were subjected to a consultation that concluded a few days ago and entailed much public debate, the eventual implementation of these proposals, perhaps with slight modifications, seems to be a foregone conclusion. They are the logical conclusion of a political process which, over the course of several decades, has conferred authority over higher education policy to the ministry for business, made “value for money for students, employers and taxpayers” the ultima ration for higher education policy, and rendered the intellectual dimensions of scholarship all but invisible. This fundamentally anti-intellectual take on higher education is readily visible in the way the DBIS’s Green Paper justifies the Teaching Excellence Framework:

“While employers report strong demand for graduate talent, they continue to raise concerns about the skills and job readiness of too many in the graduate labour pool.

Recent indications that the graduate earnings gap is in decline, and that significant numbers of graduates are going into non-graduate jobs, reinforce the need for action.

Higher education should deliver lasting value to graduates – and to the taxpayers underwriting the student loan system. We committed in our manifesto to ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money for students, and this Green Paper sets out our approach. We will reward excellent teaching with reputational and financial incentives; widen participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds; provide greater focus on employability; open up the sector to greater competition from new high quality providers; and reform our regulatory structure so that it drives value for money for students and taxpayers. For too long, teaching has been regarded as a poor cousin to academic research. The new Teaching Excellence Framework which we promised in our manifesto, will hard-wire incentives for excellent teaching and give students much more information both about the type of teaching they can expect and their likely career paths after graduation.”

Much has been written already about the fundamental misunderstandings about scholarship that are inherent in the DBIS’s position (1, 2). What has not been widely commented upon is that they might be usefully understood as an exercise in political marketing – a justification of a controversial policy proposal that is effective in so far as it underpins this proposal with widely acceptable motives. From this perspective, the DBIS’s reliance on arguments about ‘value for money’ and the economic usefulness of higher education highlights the extent to which public debates about higher education have elided the intellectual dimensions of scholarship and replaced it with the reduction of academics’ labor to the production of a skilled labor force – a kind of ‘manpower model’ of higher education (not least in terms of its masculinist outlook on academic life). In other words, the Green Paper is a prime example of a new and powerful common sense about higher education that pervades British society.

The DBIS’s marketing of the Teaching Excellence Framework obscures several probable outcomes of its implementation. As a wealth of research has shown, the validity of student satisfaction surveys as indicators of ‘teaching quality,’ whatever this might mean, is questionable at best (1 – look around even briefly and you will find a lot more on this topic). In this sense, the TEF does not seem to be so much about ‘teaching quality’ as about the construction of new underpinnings for the casualization and commercialization of academic labor in Britain. (Expect the “new high quality providers” mentioned in the Green Paper to include a good number of US-style for-profit ‘universities’.)

British academia is increasingly reliant on low-paid, short-term, part-time teaching staff, and the TEF will provide new reasons to justify constant performance measurement and the reliance on contracts contingent upon the results of regular teaching audits. The TEF seems likely to further destabilize academic employment in Britain. By adding a new source for the construction of league tables and rankings to an already ample array, the TEF also appears likely to contribute to the already intense stratification of universities, by prestige, working conditions and dominant mode of activity, into research and teaching institutions. Academic labor is apt to be differentiated further, between, on the one hand, the work of scholars able to combine research with teaching and remain intellectually active and, on the other hand, the grind of ‘teaching drones’ whose overlong hours in the classroom will be subject to constant scrutiny. Expect the bottom to fall out from under a lot of us shortly.

Daniel Nehring’s blog reflects own views only and not necessarily those of his employer.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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