Thoughts on the #HEGreenPaper

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that I’ve had quite a lot to say this morning about the Government’s HE Green Paper. It has been anticipated for some time, mainly because of the proposed introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  As usual, I’ve been frustrated by the 140 character limit for tweets, which has resulted in me upping my tweet count this morning probably by a couple of hundred per cent. So, while my thoughts on the Green Paper are fresh in my head, I thought I’d expand on, and give some further explanation for, my tweets.

As an aside, the last time I read a Green Paper properly I was doing a Critical Discourse Analysis of Welfare Reform and Community Cohesion documents during my PhD. It took me a while to be able to read the text at face value! Though  I’m sure a CDA of this Green Paper would give me plenty of work and potential publications – whether or not I could take the work and produce material that would help me in the inaugural TEF, only time will tell…!

So, let’s start with an overview of what I see as the take-away points:

The major issue for me is the continuing marketisation and commodification of (Higher) Education. This fits in, of course, with the New Right, neoliberal, position of rolling back the state, removing regulation and increasing competition. However, education at any level is a public service and should not be subject to competition. Ideally, academics should collaborate, not compete (though considering the competitive nature of academia as a career, the irony is not lost on me here!). Yet by marketising university education, more and more energy will have to be devoted to presentation and marketing, and catering to whims rather than focusing on the delivery of education. Institutions are already compelled to demonstrate their value in almost entirely monetary terms: those universities that cannot hope to compete with the Russell Group on research, for example, relentlessly market their niche, their business facing qualities, and the employability of their students. Likewise, students are encouraged not to choose a subject they enjoy, will develop from and perhaps contribute to, but rather encouraged to choose the subject that will get them a good job and/or a good salary, so that they are able to participate more fully in the consumer society in order to demonstrate their personal, social and industrial worth (i.e. human and social capital).

To ensure that such discourses are internalised and normalised, the role of the student and teacher, and the relationship between them, alter:

With the traditional student/lecturer relationship, the lecturer is admittedly in the position of power. This can be difficult for students if a lecturer or an institution follows a one-size-fits-all model of education. Yet this has not been the case for a long time in a large number of HE institutions, and to say otherwise is disingenuous. Perhaps I have just been lucky, but the majority of lecturers I have known, some of whom I have been priviliged to go on to call colleagues, strive to provide innovative and, where possible, personalised teaching, so that as many students as possible can get as much out of their experience as possible. We are educationalists because we are passionate about passing on knowledge and skills. That being said, we must all remember that teaching implies a social contract. Students must accept that they are at university to be taught by experts who know more about their choesn subject than them and who have some qualification to teach.

Changing the student/teacher relationship to customer/service provider will increase students’ expectations to potentially unrealistic proportions. Demands for more contact hours is understandable, but remember that lecturers seldom teach one course. 5 hours of contact time a week for one module may include a 2 hour lecture, two 1 hour seminars, and 1 office hour, essay workshop, surgery or similar. Now lets say the lecturer has 2 modules that semester/term. So that’s 5 hours of contact time. But alongside the contact time is the preparation time (which, if an academic still wants time to work on their research and publications may end up likely being in their own time, off the clock), marking of work (which can take hours and hours), attendance of committees, panels and meetings, and other related administration. On top of this, the academic may sit on other committees or boards (such as an ethics committee, for example), run open days, speak at events and so on. The student-as-consumer may feel that it is their right to make more demands of their staff because they demand ‘value for money’. But imagine if, as a lecturer, you have 150 students all making similar demands. How can you possibly live up to that?

Relatedly, in my mind there is a fundamental problem with the student-as-consumer mentality:

Student-centred learning is essential. Rightly so, lectures should not be an hour or two of one person talking at 200. However, the commodification of education on the student side is inherently tied up with the idea that the customer is always right. I’m paying for this education, therefore I am entitled to direct it. In one way, yes. You are free to choose what university you go to (as long as you got the grades and can afford the fees and living costs), and you are free to choose what to study (as long as you did the pre-requisite FE/school courses and your chosen degree will make you employable). But, this cannot stretch as far as teaching and assessment. Academic staff pour hours of effort and work into designing modules, degree courses and assessment. They choose the material, find appropriate books and journal articles, devise ways of communicating this in (hopefully!) an engaging manner, before providing methods of assessment and (again, hopefully!) providing personal feedback on anything from 10 to 150 pieces of students’ work. In other words, paying for your education entitles you to make the most of the opportunities provided to you. If you do not, as a student, the responsibility must ultimately rest with you. Likewise, the lecturer has a responsibility (that 99% of academic staff take incredibly seriously) to provide the student with such opportunities and make these opportunities as accessible as possible, whilst also providing personalised (where appropriate) assistance.

From the more regulatory side, there are a number of issues. First, is the issue of performance measuring.

the TEF will be an exercise in improving teaching standards across the sector. I can guarantee that no member of academic staff will be against the principle of improving standards. But this improvement must be undertaken in a meaningful way. How exactly will this be measured? So far, the major message is that teaching is not rewarded (unlike research under the REF), and this needs to be changed. So, universities will be incentivised for good teaching and rewarded appropriately. What happens to those departments that for whatever reason do not hit the top grade? This is not always because they are staffed by bad teachers. If the metrics used to measure such things are not absolutely watertight and spot-on, the reputations of good departments and hard-working staff could be irreparably damaged. Funding will go down, costs will go up, student intake will go down, departments and perhaps universities (if the situtation gets bad enough) will be forced to close. And, looking at the HE landscape, I suspect it will be those universities without the established reputations to trade upon that will suffer the most.

It is also important to cut through the rhetoric of ‘excellence in teaching’, algonside the increased social mobility that will allegedly come from these reforms.

A level playing field does not require competition between public (regulated, and with limited funding) institutions and private (less regulated, with a much higher potential for funding as long as the institution can turn a profit) institutions. Nor does it ential having ‘research intensive’ universities and the rest. A level playing field is one in which people are free to specialise in either teaching or research, or combine both, in whichever institution they work in. This means challenging certain aspects of reputation and status enjoyed by a small number of universities, as this article from Owen Jones (who does not mention Post-92 universities once, I note) argues powerfully. The increased marketisation and commodification of HE increases competition exponentially, which entrenches the position of already-powerful universities. It tips the board immeasurably in favour of the universities that already have the resources, finance, equipment, talent and reputation, leaving other, smaller, less-renowned universities scrabbling to find a finite number of niches before it’s too late. ‘Levelling the playing field’ in this sense is wholly neoliberal. Everyone competes in the same market – except, of course, some have a number of advantages to start with.

Of course, this is not a critique of the Russell Group, the Redbricks outside of the Russell Group, or indeed the Post-92s. It is rather a critique of the system and structural conditions in which contemporary HE has developed, under a misguided ethos of global competitiveness. The UK has already one of the most competitive and successful HE sectors in the world. These reforms are not primarily designed at increasing the UK HE sector’s standing in the world. The critique is aimed squarely at the government department that thought such reforms are a good idea. The first question I would encourage everyone to ask publicly is: good for whom, why, and how?

The TEF has attached to it the possibility of increasing fees for individual universities in line with inflation. If University A is markedly better at teaching than University B, it can raise its fees. Therefore University A gets more money to improve teaching, whilst University B will have to cut or reallocate budgets to improve. As we have seen recently, this likely involves cutting courses and closing departments. And which departments will go first? Likely those that cannot demonstrate on strictly in terms of economics and capital their value to the modern British globalised, entrepreneurial economy.

The Green Paper highlights the accellerated development of education as an industry, rather than a public service. It is my opinion that in the long-run, this could be very damaging. We all want an efficient, successful, innovative, prestigious and world-leading Higher Education system in the UK. I’m just not convinced this is the best way to go about it.

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