Poor universities

Chris Ramsey, King's ChesterPoor universities. It might not seem as if we should pity the leaders of our great Higher Education sector or those who work for and with students, but just think what state they are living through. Viewed by some as cushioned from austerity and still throwing up buildings left, right and centre, the object of criticism from politicians, their liberal values questioned on both sides of the Atlantic … it must be dispiriting being an academic in 2017.

Just take the two seismic events of the last year: the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. I was at Leicester University on the day of the first of these, and you could already sense shock and disbelief. Brexit had already taught the sector that neither the public nor politicians really believed universities were helping social mobility, and now the world must have seemed to them to be going mad. The Conservative manifesto (now unlikely to be enacted in full) offered more sticks than carrots to universities (fund schools or else); the press seize with gleeful horror or VCs’ pay; overseas recruitment looks under threat. Nobody, in short, seems to love universities much at the moment.

UK Higher Education genuinely is world class, and you only have to visit some of our best universities and meet some of the people there to see why.

And yet they do great work. The Times Higher Education’s annual reputation rankings yet again listed five UK institutions amongst the world’s top twenty; of course the USA had twelve, but no other country came close. UK Higher Education genuinely is world class, and you only have to visit some of our best universities and meet some of the people there to see why.

Nowhere is this truer than at the University of Liverpool, where the group I co-chair met last month. Since this fine university is one of the elite Russell Group and amongst the top two dozen in the country according to the Times Higher’s UK rankings, you’d expect some pride in its achievements. And in the city, that is very much to be felt, the superb science facilities and rising new medical school complemented by one of the country’s few vet schools in a city/campus setting. But gloom will have been the order of the day this week, as the Teaching Excellence Framework has graded Liverpool ‘bronze’, a mark of Cain it has also put on Southampton and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Now for the avoidance of doubt, I’m basically in favour of the (or at least a) Teaching Excellence Framework. It seems to me that teaching undergraduates is a sensitive, nuanced, difficult art, not like teaching school students, indeed arguably guiding your charges through even bigger intellectual changes than ever before. And it is too often poorly done. But I do have some issues with the TEF as it is, and Liverpool exposes one of the crassest problems. You see, one key metric is ‘drop out rate’. And Liverpool takes the lowest proportion of independently-educated students of any Russell Group university and the highest proportion of disadvantaged students. And the former are statistically the least likely to drop out of uni, the latter the most likely. So one explanation of Liverpool’s teaching failure is that they are tackling the social mobility gap by taking too many tricky cases. Take fewer of them and they might rise up the TEF rankings (is that what you wanted, Minister?).

I won’t go into the other problems. That the scores are set against some very complex benchmarks (which make easy headlines confusing); that the data is three years old; that the only subjective judgments used (and you need some) are the feedback from the National Student Survey, itself so riddled with holes as to be pretty scanty.  Or that a blanket judgment of ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ for a whole university of tens of thousands of individual learning experiences is pretty silly. We are promised refinements in future years after all, including a subject-level TEF in due course.

No, there is a deeper credibility gap. A student in the Upper Sixth in my school who had read the TEF results (yes, students do follow educational stories) said ‘they obviously handed the awards out like smarties’, and when we pointed out that gold hadn’t been handed to the LSE, he said ‘but everyone knows they’re brilliant. That’s why it’s so hard to get in.’ Does any sensible commentator really believe that Durham, for example, has teaching overall worse than Solihull College? Will it matter?

It will for two big reasons. One is that this is the mechanism for fee rises, so that getting yourself into a ‘gold’ university will mean saddling yourself with more debt. An attraction or a detraction all other things being equal? The other is international recruitment, where a ‘low’ score might genuinely detract and lead to real income loss.

So to all those woes we started with, we can now add ‘an eccentric and potentially misleading ranking system, with unintended consequences for social mobility’. But let’s end with some hope. Students being more politically engaged than ever before (as virtually all commentators believe is the case) must mean challenge and questioning of practices, and support for the Liverpools and LSEs, whose students are proud of them. Above all, survey after survey tells us that students want to study, and study seriously. They aren’t obsessed by employability (incomprehensibly one of the other metrics for ‘teaching’), and they aren’t the big socialisers the press might think. Education matters to them.

So hold your heads up, UK universities. Take heart. Try to brace yourselves during the falling birthrate, and the wobbles about a fee regime many of you never believed in anyway, the rising tide of student wellbeing problems and the TEF. Students want to study: they want to get down to it and they want to learn. You are good at what you do: believe in it.

By Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of The King's School, Chester and Chair of the HMC / GSA Universities Committee