free education series: (i) on the TEF

On 6th November 2015, the Government released a new Green Paper, comedically or mockingly entitled Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. This Green Paper was open for public consultation until 15th January 2016. In other words, this consultation was pushed out and pulled back in again during what is simultaneously one of the busiest periods of the academic year, and one of time wheres terms end, and people take time off, for an extended period. It would be no wonder, therefore, if you had never heard of it.

The policy push being made here will come as no surprise to those who follow policy trajectories in UK Higher Education. This trajectory, not unlike many others, is one of an intensification of marketisation (in this case, the continual embrace of the shift from publicly funded universities to ones financed through debt) and quantification (the reduction and flattening of qualitative differences between types of research and different types of teaching to quantitative data – the increasing hegemony of the “league table”). In this short post I will just point to three preliminary problems, with the hope on to developing on these problems as actionable points .

  • The insidious instrumentalism of which this Green Paper forms a part is one which has been met, as far as I have seen, with overwhelming negativity and scepticism. As if the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (which increasingly governs how academics conduct their work) wasn’t enough of a blow to ‘academic freedom’ (whatever that might mean), the proposed introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) looks set to ensure that that blow is even harder.
Problem One: Does it matter that so many in Higher Education appear to be against this move? Will the Government listen to this overwhelming negative industry response to the proposed TEF? If not – which, we might venture to speculate, is likely - what else can we do?  
  • The influence of the REF on institutional practices cannot be underestimated. Its effect is widespread, influencing research culture, research content, heightening individual accountability, putting a constant premium on reputation and its maintenance, influenced hiring practices, and so on. Not that the University was without some of these insidious and hyper-competitive elements beforehand, but they were hardly features which needed exacerbation.
Problem Two: What sort of internal atmospheres do these policy drives help create in the University? The increased corporatisation of the University is not surprising: high level scientific, military, and pharmaceutical research is central the functioning and perpetuation of today’s version of capitalism, and the academy is absolutely central to the perpetuation of these hegemonies. Despite this centrality, academics have less and less of a voice in their own working conditions (and, again, this is not to romanticise previous conditions). What resources can those in higher education mobilise to resist these drives towards increased hyper-competitiveness and instead build co-operative, collaborative, and accessible atmospheres?
  • What insidious and hyper-competitive tendencies might the TEF exacerbate? It is difficult to predict. But we have some clues. TEF accreditation, unlike the REF’s, will not be connected with research funding. Instead, TEF accreditation will be linked to what prices institutions will be able to charge their “service users” (….). Higher TEF “scores” for institutions looks set to mean higher fees: class privilege will, this is to say, remain intensely at the heart of tertiary education. (Note, these fees rises are, apparently, set to be capped at inflation, at the highest. But in addition to this, the language of ‘deregulation’ is omnipresent in the Green Paper.)

Problem Three: Pedagogical Homogenisation: While couched in a language of “incentives to innovate” in teaching practices, in essence such transformation will most likely produce a “drive to standardisation”. That is, the tendency will be one of pedagogical homogenisation around what ever “best practice” happens to be. One needn’t look very deep into this Green Paper to see the purposes of TEF have nothing to do with making University education more enriching and challenging. Their central purposes are productivity growth and the accumulation of human capital (“employability” “transferable skills” and so forth…), which were crucial in the development of the REF and in the infamous Browne Review (2010) which formed the basis for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat trebling of tuition fee caps.

One of the key effects of the TEF will be to drive a further wedge between “teacher” and “student”, to render this relationship increasingly governed by market accountability and impersonal instrumentalism. In other words, one of its key effects will be to solidify the marketisation and impersonalisation of the teacher/student relationship.

Responses to the TEF are beginning and mounting. The Second Convention on Higher Education, for example, are seeking to write an Alternative White Paper. The Campaign for the Public University have also spoken out against it (links to relevant articles are below).

This post is extremely preliminary and will be followed by a number of further posts on this theme (hence titling this "free education series"). If you have any information on campaigns which seek to resist the REF and/or TEF, or anything even tangentially related, then please get in touch (my contact details are at the bottom of the page). 

Further Reading

Click here to see the Government's Green paper. 

John Morgan in Times Higher Education, 'TEF: ‘poorly designed’ system will harm reputations, MPs warn"

Dorothy Bishop in Times Higher Education, 'Clarity of purpose in the TEF and the REF'

The Second Convention on Higher Education's page

John Holmwood, Campaign for the Public University, 'Slouching Towards the Market' [Part 1]

John Holmwood, Campaign for the Public University, 'Slouching Towards the Market' [Part 2]

John Holmwood in Times Higher Education, 'We need a genuine alternative to the higher education Green Paper'

In addition, two of my own papers (see here and here) directly intersect with this current policy climate in UK Higher Education, what this means in terms of how we treat "knowledge" today, as well as how all of this might relate to resistance.