What Brexit and the Teaching Excellence Framework mean for higher education

An interview with John Gill, Editor-in-Chief of Times Higher Education.

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Sep 27, 2016
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John Gill has been editor of Times Higher Education since March 2012. He has previously held roles as news editor, deputy news editor and reporter with the magazine. John can be found on Twitter at @JG_THE.

For non-UK readers, what is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and what does it mean for university students?

The Teaching Excellence Framework is a new – and controversial – government initiative that seeks to emulate the UK’s Research Excellence Framework as a means to measure and reward high-quality teaching by universities. The idea is to “audit” all universities, using a basket of metrics (broadly, these would be student satisfaction ratings; graduate completion rates; and graduate salaries after six months) plus an element of peer review. Taken together, and with a layer of benchmarking to weight scored on the basis of the student profile of each institution and how much educational “value add” a university has achieved, these would constitute a measure of teaching quality. In the first year, the TEF will not be linked to variable tuition fee levels (other than the basic rule that institutions will have to pass the TEF in order to raise fees by inflation), however the intention is to make this link to funding more explicit in time. This has been a particularly controversial element of the scheme, as has the basket of metrics, which many critics argue do not, in fact, serve as credible proxies for teaching excellence. It’s undoubtedly the case that universities have, over time, prioritised research over teaching, though many would take issue with the universities minister Jo Johnson’s claim that there is “lamentable” teaching out there. So there’s a general acceptance that addressing teaching, in an age of higher tuition fees, is the right thing to do. However, there’s also considerable disquiet among the traditional research elite about what the TEF might mean for the reputation of UK higher education, and their own institutions. Times Higher Education recently ran a “mock TEF” using publicly available data to model how the TEF might turn out. This was not a perfect simulation of the TEF-proper (there was no element of peer review, for example), but the results were striking and give a good idea of where the TEF might be heading – they can be found in full here.

What impact will Brexit have for UK universities and the student experience?

The implications of Brexit for UK universities are potentially very serious indeed, though as with everything else surrounding Brexit at the moment, the final outcome will not be clear for some time. The biggest financial threats fall into two brackets: the future flow of EU students (who universities have recruited increasingly aggressively since the government lifted its cap on student numbers – EU students get access to state-backed student loans, and pay £9k fees, in the same way as British students); and the future of UK access to European research funding. The big question here is whether or not UK universities will continue to get access to the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 programme. This is a hugely important source of research funding for the UK – indeed, it is one of the few areas where the country gets back much more than it puts in (about £1billion a year). We are already hearing, anecdotally, about multi-national research teams that are applying for funding asking UK participants to leave the group, on the basis that it may jeopardise the funding once Brexit happens (whenever that may be). So this is a problem now – not just a problem that will have to be addressed down the line. In terms of the student experience, it’s absolutely clear that UK universities are now international, rather than national, institutions. Some (for example, the London School of Economics) have a student population that is over 50 per cent international. As a country that has historically had very poor outward mobility, it would be a disaster for UK universities, and for British students, if Brexit led to a significant reduction in students coming from Europe – not least because studying alongside overseas peers has been shown to improve British students’ employability prospects.

How do you think technology will change the way that higher education is delivered in the future? Will Moocs and virtual learning environments spell the end of the live lecture?

No, Moocs will not kill off the live lecture. I think we can be pretty confident about saying that now, though a lot of people got very caught up in the excitement about the Moocs “avalanche” that was promised in 2012 (which the New York Times dubbed “the year of the Mooc”). But that’s not to say that technology, including but not limited to Moocs, hasn’t already fundamentally changed the way that the best teaching and learning takes place. Ideas that have been around for quite a long time now, such as the model of the flipped classroom, with foundation work delivered via video and small group work delivered in person, are becoming the norm on campuses around the world. But I think that, particularly in the well-established higher education systems, many of the traditional elements of higher education delivery will survive for the foreseeable future. Technology will enhance the experience, rather than replace it. There are a couple of trends that pose a threat to some of this, particularly in countries such as those in south-east Asia where demand for higher education is exploding, populations are very young, and money is tight. Modes of delivery in these countries may vary more significantly over time. And there’s no escaping the rapidly escalating levels of personal debt that people are incurring in countries such as the US and UK in particular (both domestic students but also internationally mobile students from countries such as China, India, Malaysia and Nigeria) as a result of the changing funding models for higher education. In time this can only exert pressure on universities to find ways to use technology to lower costs and deliver at least elements of what they do in a more efficient way.

How much do university rankings affect student choice – and in your experience, which matters more, THE reputation rankings or world rankings?

There’s no doubt that the world rankings have a significant role in the decision-making process, particularly among internationally mobile students. A recent survey by Hobsons, which we’ve written about here, found that one third of 17,000 international students questioned consult the Times Higher Education World University Rankings when they are choosing where to study. It’s not the only factor, of course, and nor should it be. But it’s a powerful overview of university performance – and reputation – that has become a widely used starting point for both prospective students and their parents when they are thinking about where they might apply. This puts a huge responsibility on us, as a rankings organisation, because these students are making one of the most important decisions of their lives – a decision that could affect everything that follows (and which will very often require an investment of tens of thousands of pounds in the form of tuition fees). It’s the reason that we take the integrity of our rankings so seriously, and why we decided some time ago to build an in-house team of data scientists who collect and analyse all the institutional data that sits within the 13 indicators that comprise our rankings. It’s also why we work with Elsevier to deliver our citation data, and why we’ve just announced that our rankings are the only ones of their type to now be independently audited by PwC. In terms of the difference between the World University Rankings and the World Reputation Rankings, it’s worth bearing in mind that our flagship ranking does include the reputation data (which we collect through a unique, invitation-only survey of published researchers, which we carefully weight to be representative of the proportion of research in different countries and disciplines globally). This is clearly a subjective measure – reputation can only be subjective – but because of the way we carry out the survey, and whom we ask to participate, we are confident that it is a robust indicator. And there’s no point denying that reputation and prestige are hugely important in higher education, both to academics (what researcher does not want to have a paper published in Nature?) and to students and employers. For good or ill, career prospects post-graduation are still closely linked to the reputation of the university you attend. So both rankings are important, but we would direct people first and foremost to our World University Rankings as the best overview available of institutional strength across all the core areas of university activity, from research to the teaching environment to links with industry – with reputation another one of those crucial indicators.

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Donna Lu

Managing Editor, npj Science of Learning Community

As Managing Editor of the Community, I oversee commissioned content, interviews, and all editorial contribution to the site. Please contact me for any enquiries relating to the npj Science of Learning Community.

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