“A Vintage Year” – Johnson on the TEF

So Johnson Minor spoke this morning at the UUK conference, a hotly anticipated talk that was trailed to offer more detail on government plans for HE – in particular, legislative plans and the TEF.

It’s the latter that will get the most interest, details have been maddeningly sparse and the middle months of 2015 will henceforth be known as the Summer of Unfounded TEF Expectation.

Sadly, this situation will continue. Very little hard fact was added. The TEF section of the speech was notable only for a few minor, but potentially revealing, linguistic choices.

  • “teaching is highly variable across higher education”. “Variable” underpins the impression that a TEF would have a standardising function, rather than driving innovation. Basically a system that would produce innovation needs variability in order to do so, otherwise all innovation would need to be centrally mandated. Those hoping that TEF will drive innovative teaching and professional autonomy will be disappointed.
  • “There are inspiring academics who go the extra mile, supporting struggling students, emailing feedback at weekends and giving much more of their time than duty demands.” Those hoping that the TEF will recognise and value teaching may also be disappointed. Most – and I’m not exaggerating here – is what is good about HE happens in the personal time of academics. As Jonathan Worth said at ALTC2015 this is family time, failed relationships, missed school sports days, working holidays, late nights. Johnson’s language codifies this, being frank, voluntary academic work as an expectation. I’m expecting the UCU response to major on this aspect.
  • “marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output” – most universities make more from their physical campus estate than from research income. This is an old canard, and needs to be shot down.
  • “the TEF will not just be about accessing additional funds” – but it primarily will be. It rewards institutions for the poorly paid and poorly recognised work of academic staff who teach. Don’t think for a second any of this money will go back to the academics in question. And don’t think that most teaching will not still be done by the young and easily exploitable precariat.
  • “the National Student Survey has started to shift the focus back towards teaching, feedback and academic support within universities” – no it hasn’t. It has shifted focus back towards standardisation of the student experience It has brought targets, metrics, data collection and fear. And it is eminently gameable, subject to statistically unlikely periodicity and of almost no use as a serious research instrument.

So this is not a cheery message. This is not filling me with confidence that the sound advice of the ANTF and Higher Education Academy is taken on board. This is not even convincing me that BIS have read “The Metric Tide“.

What with this, and parallel whispers about changes to regulatory organisations, McKinsey, and even changes to the “dual support” system for funding research, autumn for UK HE is looking bleak and painful.

[other coverage: Martin EveMark LeachHugh Jones ]

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