How should the value of a university degree be measured?

  
Jo Johnson is promoting the idea of a Teaching excellence framework for universities and talks of students getting the ‘teaching’ they deserve. Seems like a good idea. There are some provocative issues within this proposal however.

Can we assume that talking of getting the ‘teaching’ they deserve was a slip of the tongue? Surely Mr Johnson means getting the education they deserve? There is an important difference that is to my view grounded in an emancipatory philosophy. It’s not just about getting stuff into someone’s head (teaching) it’s also about getting stuff out. Karen Millheim explains in Adult Education (2011) :
“According to Sprague and Brown (2008), ‘education provides students with cognitive tools and self-efficacy to understand and impact the broader structures that shape their life chances’ (p. 2). Viewed this way, emancipa- tory educators hold the potential to shape instruction in a way that cultivates this way of thinking. Their role is to advocate for social justice, posing problems and eliciting dialogue from their students (Tisdell & Taylor, 1999).”

The clue therefore is in the title; higher ‘education’ not higher ‘teaching’ . Universities are not simply beefed up secondary schools tasked with getting stuff into pupils heads they are the social context where the rite of passage of changing from being a taught student to a self-directed learner takes place. The introduction to subject knowledge is but one dimension of this experience. 

Are we to assume from Jo Johnson’s slip that he thinks a university is just a big secondary school and that they should be managed accordingly? We can assume that he is steeped in a managerialist ideology because he has an MBA and this might guide his perspective.

I have an MBA too and I know just how biased the philosophical assumptions of this qualification can be towards linear rational objectivity. The belief that nothing has value unless it can be measured.  So no wonder he leans to measuring things without necessarily expressing  ‘what’ needs measuring and why , what appropriate types of measure might be and why, and scant attention to any unintended consequences of metric selection that may result. (Just witness the coaching of pupils to pass exams, directional assignment explanations and repeated resubmission of work that takes place in our schools).

The TEF is proposed to run in parallel with another quality framework posited by the higher education funding council. Seems like the bureacrats can’t get enough of measuring things. Metriphilia is a predatory bureaucrats disease (cf David Graeber). Already the administration compliance burden on UK universities is £1billion per annum. 

Jo’s other target of interest is grade inflation. This is laudable and at the same time ironic. The number of instances of students telling me what grade they deserve and expect and the frequency of challenging grades is on the increase. Of course it is! We keep telling students they are customers. 

People who go to university are both customers of the institution and at the same time students having their intellect developed and tested. This latter process may not necessarily be the comfortable experience a mere customer might demand or expect.

Students in customer mode know that if their grade expectations aren’t met they can anonymously undercut the reputation of academics (without evidence btw) on module feedback forms, student voice meetings and the NSS. So reasons to give a 2:1 are sought by academics because of the preference to accede to the view of the customer rather than grading the student at a 2:2. 

So called grade inflation is further reinforced by university pedagogic experts and external examiners recommending ‘the full range of marks’ is used. In other words the 70% glass grade ceiling that defines a first is shattered. 

Of course the tax payer should get value for money. As any MBA student will tell you though, ‘what you measure is what you get’ (cf Norton and Kaplan) and you might just get a secondary school rather than a university! 

See  An Ofsted for universities too

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