‘Current Issues in HE’: NAMHE-Convened Roundtable Discussion from the RMA Research Students’ Conference, University of Bangor, Jan. 2016. Part III

In the third part of our transcription of the ‘Current Issues in HE’ NAMHE-convened roundtable discussion that took place at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bangor, Dr Helen Julia Minors discusses the new TEF [Teaching Excellence Framework] and teaching qualifications in HE institutions.


Part I         Part II          Part III          Part IV          Part V

Presenter [Zaina Shihabi]:

Thank you, Dr Laura. Both eye-opening and interesting presentations, thank you both. Our next presenter is Dr Helen Julia Minors, who is the Head of Department of Music and Technology and Associate Professor of Music at Kingston University. She’s also been vice-chair of NAMHE for almost three years, and on the committee for four. Today she will discuss the TEF and teaching qualifications in HE institutions.

Third Speaker [Dr Helen Julia Minors]:

Thank you. I’m going to talk about teaching as the focus with two elements – as Zaina said, the TEF [the Teaching Excellence Framework] – and then I’ll lead into the idea that we have a teaching qualification, and talk a little bit about why we should be considering doing that if you haven’t already. What I should say to contextualise this is whereas the first two issues have been out in public for a long time, and we’ve already gone through a consultation and responded, the issue of the TEF is relatively recent and the consultation is still open. We’re currently working on this and we haven’t actually finished the work on this. As a consequence, much of what I’m going to say is to raise some awareness and raise some questions; what I’m not going to be able to give you at the moment is some answers to what the change is going to be, because it’s still open. What I would like to say at this stage is if you’ve got any questions at the end, it’s a really useful thing to start to discuss, and if you’ve got some good ideas, or you’ve got something that you feel strongly about, we can listen to you and put your responses into our response to the consultation.

So, what is the TEF, this Teaching Excellence Framework? In many ways it is modelling itself on the REF – the Research Excellence Framework – by looking for, improving excellence within subjects, within universities. Now, the first question I have here is: what is excellence, and who is defining it? Excellence in every single subject, and every university, obviously is going to be defined slightly differently. The report doesn’t actually define what this is, in my opinion. However, a Teaching Excellence Framework that puts students at the centre of teaching, something that drives up the standards of teaching, surely should be a good thing. If we’re constantly aiming to be highly professional and improve what we do, the heart of this aim to improve teaching should, we hope, be a benefit to us all. So any questions that we raise for this has to be to improve what we’re doing. One of the aims, apart from improving excellence, however, is to improve productivity – the word ‘productivity’ comes a lot throughout this document. It sounds very much – as we were just discussing before — as though we are all creating boxes to put things in, to market and to sell it. So another question we have to ask as musicians is: what is our productivity, what are we trying to get our students to do? Beyond putting them into a career, what is it they’re going to produce? Are we talking about economic productivity, and therefore is the financial driver going to feed into our curriculum and the way we teach? Is that a problem? Does it remove the issue of academic judgement and academic freedom? Because let’s face it when we look at the REF and research, there is an acknowledgement that some research is done out of curiosity, not just to make money and to put somebody into a job, okay?  We have a passion. I’m talking about what’s in our hearts, we want to do something.  It’s not always about productivity. The teaching framework is looking to centralise and to review and to change the landscape of higher education institutions and the way we support and employ teachers effectively.

Why is it significant? It’s significant because in changing that landscape we need to think about who is asking to change it.  The government effectively overnight privatised higher education institutions with the introduction of the fees, but by proposing the TEF they’re introducing, or trying to add to their leverage over how universities function, particularly how the teaching of our students is going to occur, and how that is valued, and what form of teaching or even assessment is going to be seen as acceptable.  And we’ve already seen as Chris has said at the level of GCSE and A Level that the assessments are more reliant on exams and written work.  So I’ve got a concern around this, that this document doesn’t mention the word creativity anywhere.  It talks about productivity, it talks about learning quality and assessments and exit targets.  Where is the creativity within this document!

So this is potentially going to form a new culture of academics.  Now there are many potentially new academics in the room, there are a number of people doing MAs and PhDs, so you need to be aware of this changing landscape.  During the PhD you might train in research, it trains us towards the REF to produce disseminated products, articles, book chapters.  What it isn’t doing, unless we choose to take extra learning opportunities, is training us how to teach.  Now fundamentally most university budgets come way way way more than fifty percent from student fees.  If you can’t teach you’re not going to be able to get a job in a university, simply put.  Twenty percent of your average role as an academic, as a lecturer and senior lecturer, is teaching and administration around teaching, so assessments, open days, admissions and what have you, so we need to address that balance.  Now one thing that the TEF has the potential to change positively I would say with the culture is that teaching should not just be research-led, but could be research-based, so that the two angles, research and teaching, could potentially become much more blended and mapped onto each other, because we have a problem at the moment that quite often the two things are discussed separately.  Now there is a disturbing quotation within the document, page twenty if anyone is interested, and it says, ‘there is evidence to suggest strong orientation towards research which often reveals a weak emphasis on teaching, and vice versa’.  Now I’m pretty sure that I’m speaking to the converted, that those of us who have a research interest want to teach.  We want to share our passion with our students.  We want to create active, creative, quality musicians.  So there is something happening, something wrong, if there is a disconnect between these two angles.  So the TEF if it is looking to readdress that balance has potential.  However it doesn’t say how it is going to do it yet, so I just want to raise a few issues about where I think there is some concern with the TEF, and what I know that we are discussing at the moment with NAMHE, we’ve got a meeting coming up, to respond to this consultation.

So, if we are going to assess teaching, and if we are going to assess institutions and departments, I would argue that it doesn’t need to be institutionally-led, it needs to be subject-driven.  If we are going to assess how we teach music and music technology, it needs to be music / music technologists that do that assessment.  It has to be within the subject to understand that.  There is precedence for this: the QAA benchmark document has musicians / music technologists on that panel.  There is precedence for the REF: the panels are subject-driven.  But also if we’re going to assess this there needs to be a clear benchmark, as we have for the QAA benchmark for the subject.  So what is the benchmark for teaching?  One of the responses we’ve seen so far comes from the Historical Society and they talk a lot about small group teaching.  Now if you’re teaching performance we have one-to-one teaching in some areas, we do have small group teaching, we have large group teaching.  We’ve got teaching that has peer assessment, which not every subject has.  We have a highly subjective subject, where there is not just right and wrong: there are many ways to conduct an ensemble, there is a wrong way but there are many different ways to do it.  So we have to really carefully benchmark.  If we don’t carefully benchmark we’re going to create more problems for ourselves.  Therefore how do we actually say what quality teaching is, how can we confirm we’ve improved excellence.  To improve excellence, I want to make a strong point: I would advocate for the independence of academic judgement to be upheld.  I have a fear from this document that it might be removed, and that is mostly a personal fear I think at the minute.

The other thing I want to push is timescales for this.  If you’re trying to change a culture you need a broad consultation. This document was released in November 2015, we’ve had Christmas, we’ve had New Year, and the consultation is about to close.  We haven’t had that much time to respond to this so I do have a concern about the timescales.  There is a proposition to start to instil this in one or two years, and then for institutions, not disciplines but institutions, to apply for the TEF Level 1, that would be upheld for it is proposed three years, and then each level potentially to be upheld for five years and to keep applying.  So an institution would have to keep applying to increase its status and to increase its reputation.

There is a discussion of a financial incentive by increasing student fees.  However I want to raise another question about incentives.  When institutions put staff forward for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, the incentive is not just reputation, it is financial, because we are looking for financial gain with what you are awarded through the REF.  That financial incentive with the TEF is not going to be as large, but the administrative burden, the workload burden and the cost of this is potentially going to be as large if not larger than the REF.  I’m sure most of you are aware that not everybody is put forward to the REF.  Managers, and we are all probably a part of this, select very carefully who is put forward.  You are playing a game to get the best result you possibly can.  The discussion with the TEF, and I think this should actually be the same for the REF, is that every single academic that has a contract with teaching involved should be submitted as part of the application.  If that happens there should be parity, in my view, that we should do the same for research.  If you’ve got a research contract you should be put forward.  However that draws another problem.  If you’re being assessed on both areas would the TEF potentially encourage universities to use more teaching-focused contracts that do not involve research.  We know there are some institutions aiming in that direction already.  There is an issue if you want new research and new knowledge to be projected to students that academics need to be at the cutting edge of the development of our discipline, so we need teaching-and-research contracts, they are the same entity.  To be an academic you should be doing both, I would claim.

Every time there seems to be a suggestion of what could improve the culture there is a knock-on problem, whether it is financial, workload, administrative, or whether it is how we benchmark and assess what it is we’re doing.  One of the drivers within this TEF document beyond improving productivity is the issue of widening participation, removing those perceived barriers for those from different demographic social backgrounds, those from different broad ethnicities, so there is a whole section talks about the BME demographic, so the black and minority ethnicities.  They do talk about the increase of those students going to university, but the increase of forty percent is against a very small metric to start with.  We have to make sure that anything that’s instilled within this document doesn’t actually put up a new barrier.  We’ve already seen, as Chris has showed, there’s a decreasing number of students coming through music A Level, coming into music departments.  We know there’s been a serious cut in music departments over the last ten to fifteen years, and that as we might discuss later is continuing.  We want to make sure therefore that music is open to all social groups.  Everybody should be able to enter this subject. We’re in a subject where one-to-one tuition is some areas is now being charged in addition to fees.  That potentially could be a problem, so if we are assessing the teaching quality of the academics, how does this impact on the instrumental tuition which is largely one-to-one, largely these people are employed on temporary zero-hours contracts, they don’t fall under the academic contract.  How do you assess quality for those?  That isn’t covered I would say in this document at the moment.

I’ve said there is a workload problem, there’s a cost problem here, but also what about metrics.  The metrics that are suggested in here to look at in relation to the TEF are the destination of graduates.  Well, one, the destination of graduates, the information we have is not always accurate.  We know from our own institutions, and speaking from my own example, that they telephone during the day to find out what people are doing, when you’re at work which doesn’t help.  But as this document rightly says the type of work and the level of employment in that job, we don’t have that granular detail all the time so we need more detail.  We need more detail of graduate earnings over a longer period of time.  There’s also a discussion of metrics with retention, and as the document rightly says, this needs to include more detail for students’ background and the students’ context.  Just because someone leaves university doesn’t mean the programme’s necessarily at fault if somebody for example has ill health and has suspension, or leaves for something other than academic reasons.  So we need more granular detail there as well.  And I don’t want to state the obvious here but I’m going to do: If the NSS, the National Student Survey, is a measure, a metric, student satisfaction does not necessarily correlate directly to quality teaching.  If we are good teachers we have to challenge our students.  The degree should not be easy, otherwise we’re reducing the standard and the quality of what we’re doing.  We have to push our students.  That is a very difficult discussion in terms of also meeting satisfaction.  I’m sure I’m not the only one in the room that has pushed students and only two or three years after graduation do they then appreciate what it is that they have done.

There’s also the issue of teaching intensity.  With increasing costs and reduced student numbers we still want to make sure that we’re able to teach in small groups, have the one-to-one teaching, have the small group seminars, and not just be led by a critical mass of one colleague in front of many many students.  We need that personable engagement.  Music, as Laura has already said, is about communication, it’s about interrelationships.  We need to form those, and a lot of that is through performing with our students, through talking with our students, through exploring their creativity, their compositions in small groups, and using peer-assessment.

The TEF at the moment is out for consultation.  I’ve just raised some of the questions that I think there are issues with.  But of course the driver with raising quality would be to have your teaching qualification.  Now at the moment the Higher Education Academy does have a series of levels of teaching qualification, which many of you if you are teaching as postgraduates or you’re early career academics will be able to do.  Now this is where there’s a slight problem because the TEF document suggests we should go for an Office for Students which would centralise all current other processes including HEFCE, the HEA, HESA.  At the moment the Higher Education Academy offers Associate Fellowships, Fellowships, Senior Fellowships, and Principal Fellowships.  Most universities now have their awarding powers internally, and you can take these programmes within your institutions to get your teaching qualification.  For most institutions you will not be appointed without the qualification though.  The last three or four interview panels I’ve sat on if somebody doesn’t have the teaching qualification they’re not even shortlisted.  So it’s becoming a driver for the access to the job.  For those staff who don’t already have these qualifications, even if they’ve been teaching twenty or thirty years, there’s a driver pushing them to take these qualifications.  Now my own institutions and others I’m aware of, colleagues even if they’ve decided they’re working for one more year are being pushed to do this qualification, otherwise they’re being threatened with demotion in some areas.  I’m not going to name institutions but this is a real threat to some colleagues.

So my message to anyone that’s doing a PhD, thinking of doing a PhD, that’s in an early career, look at the HEA website, look at what training is offered by your institution.  To engage with improving your own excellence is one way to critically reflect and to get that support before we even consider the TEF and respond to the TEF.

Thank you.


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