Home > Blog > Jo Johnson MP speech at our Members’ Annual Conference raised once more the issue of teaching quality in universities.

Jo Johnson MP speech at our Members’ Annual Conference raised once more the issue of teaching quality in universities.

9 September 2015
Kathleen Henehan

Kathleen Henehan

Former ​Policy Analyst
Universities UK

Following his speech today at the Universities UK Members’ Annual Conference, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP raised once more the issue of teaching quality in universities.

It has led many to ask, ‘what is excellent teaching and how can it be measured?’ Unsurprisingly, this raises more questions than answers.

Without a clear definition of ‘teaching excellence’, where do we stand? We might start by examining the context in which the minister has discussed the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Setting out his plans for a TEF in a speech at Universities UK in July, he stated: “My aims for the TEF are to ensure all students receive an excellent teaching experience that encourages original thinking, drives up engagement and prepares them for the world of work.”

Original thinking, student engagement and work-readiness; how does teaching help achieve this and how can we measure it?

As previous Higher Education Academy (HEA) work has highlighted, teaching excellence is multi-levelled and assessment needs to account for relevant educational standards or expectations, institutional frameworks, the practice of individuals or course teams and availability of evidence. Notably, the HEA suggests that recognition to teachers is often awarded retrospectively rather than through any “theoretically robust” framework.

The term ‘metric’ has dominated much of the TEF-related discussion this summer. What metrics do we currently have to allow us to gauge original thinking, student engagement and work-readiness? On the one hand, they can be quantitative measures of relevant outcomes or qualitative assessments of relevant practice and processes, or even of the actual learning gain by students.

There are, however, few national-level quantitative metrics that allow for fair comparison across institutions. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publish UK Performance Indicators, which measure and benchmark individual universities’ progress on retention, employment outcomes, research output and widening participation. The National Student Survey (NSS) produces benchmarked figures on course satisfaction, but other NSS questions are not benchmarked for subject and/or entry qualifications, and are thus difficult to compare across institutions.

These metrics don’t specifically measure teaching excellence and are influenced by a raft of academic and non-academic factors, some of which may be outside the institution’s control. Furthermore here is no clear link between course satisfaction and student engagement while the NSS questions on academic support and staff contact are not currently benchmarked.

The six month destination of leavers survey is an indirect proxy of the work-readiness of recent graduates and are available and benchmarked for factors including subject and entry qualifications, but not region.

Alternatively there is the potential to use analysis of student engagement with different systems to build models of effective learning. For example Nottingham Trent University are piloting a programme that combines data on tutorial attendance, resource usage, assessment submissions, library loans, card swipes and academic history into a proxy for student engagement, and linking said proxy to academic achievement. These systems illustrate how different student behaviours, as well as extraneous circumstances can affect a student outcome and the influence that different types of interventions and support, both academic and pastoral, may have on a student’s outcomes.

Linking policy objectives to models of teaching excellence or student outcomes is no simple feat and there is still much more to consider. Student outcomes can be influenced by a series of both academic and non-academic factors. On the one hand, the integrity of academic award, course design, teaching and feedback and study facilities are all essential parts of the equation. On the other, engagement, learning gain and employment can also be influenced by extracurricular activities, post-study advice, pastoral care and student welfare and a student’s own personal circumstances.

The TEF and reform of quality assessment represent a real opportunity to help positively shape the sector’s strategic and operational focus on teaching excellence. However, to make the most of this opportunity, it is essential that sector bodies, institutions, staff and students work together to develop effective, flexible and proportionate definitions and measures of excellence.

As the minister outlined today, we expect more detail in the government’s green paper, due to be published in the autumn. Universities UK will be involved in these discussions and will contribute fully to the consultation process over the coming months.

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