23 May 2018
by Paul Ashwin

The importance of arguing over teaching excellence

Only through disagreement and dispute can we establish what we value most in teaching, argues Professor Paul Ashwin in Times Higher Education.

At a recent Centre for Global Higher Education and Universities UK event, policymakers, institutional managers, student representatives and higher education researchers met to discuss what the future of the teaching excellence framework might look like. There were two contributions examining students’ views of the meaning of teaching excellence and how teaching excellence is approached in Norway. Another pair of presentations examined what the measurement of teaching excellence could learn from the learning gain pilots initiated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and from the measurement of teaching excellence in schools. The final presentations examined how the TEF could further support teaching enhancement by learning from the Scottish quality enhancement framework and by the work of the newly formed AdvanceHE.

The event was designed to focus on how the TEF could develop in the future. It started from the assumption that prospective students need to know the quality of the teaching offered by different universities, and the key challenge is to identify the most effective way of doing this rather than simply critiquing the current version of the TEF.

Personally, across the presentations and discussions, I felt that three issues were highlighted that are important for the future development of the TEF.

First, while the TEF is often argued to be necessary because there is variability in teaching quality, this is a mistake. There will always be variability in quality, across and within institutions and over time. The important issue is not the existence of this variability but rather whether this variability is structured and sustained. In other words, what is important is whether there are institutions that have degree programmes that are consistently of a markedly higher or lower quality than other institutions, rather than whether in some years one university’s degree programmes are slightly better or worse than those of another university.

Taking this insight seriously would lead to a different approach to the TEF because it would assume that some variability is normal, and instead focus on particularly successful and particularly problematic provision. Given that the costs of the TEF mean that, under the current approach, the award will be held for five or six years and, therefore, that the view of quality they offer will be more often than not significantly out of date, this alternative approach should be given serious consideration.

Second, as became clear when discussing the measurement of teaching excellence in schools, we need to challenge the notion that the way in which metrics distort practices is an unfortunate side effect of metrics. Instead, rather than seeing metrics as transparent and simplified proxies for a richer set of teaching practices, we need to start from the position that what we choose to measure will end up defining quality precisely in terms of those measures.

This means that if our metrics do not explicitly include measures of what we value, we will end up promoting institutional practices that ignore these values. This view of metrics suggests that we need to accept that they are likely to change quite frequently as we gain a better understanding of the kinds of practices that they encourage. As a result, the focus would shift from an obsession with largely meaningless comparisons over time to a more thoughtful consideration of what a current set of metrics tell us about both teaching practices and the metrics themselves and how these metrics could be developed further in the future.

Third, it is very difficult to have a sustained conversation about the meaning of teaching excellence in the context of the TEF. Our discussions always seemed to shift to focus on the measurement of teaching excellence even when we tried to focus on its meaning. This seems to be another example of the tendency, discussed above, to value what is measured rather than measuring what is valued. However, the problem with this is that it shuts down fuller discussions of what counts as excellent teaching, a situation that has not been helped by the Department for Education consistently positioning anything to do with the measurement of the TEF as a ‘technical consultation’. These debates are anything but technical. They go to the heart of the kinds of versions of teaching excellence that are promoted by the TEF. What was fascinating about our discussions at the event was that participants clearly had different views of the nature of teaching excellence but these were difficult to articulate and there was a tendency to minimise the differences in these views rather than examining in detail what these different versions of teaching excellence could offer us.

At the end of a thought-provoking event, I was left with the sense that we need to articulate the differences in these versions of teaching excellence more clearly. We need to argue about which meanings of teaching excellence are most valid when offering prospective students a view of the quality of the degree programmes that they may choose to study. We need to disagree about the ways in which these can be effectively measured and the ways in which that measurement will change our understanding of teaching excellence. We need to share our different views on how we can support teaching enhancement through the measurement of teaching excellence. This is because, unless we engage in these processes of disagreement and dispute, we will end up with approaches to teaching excellence that ignore what we most treasure about teaching and learning in higher education.