There is a highly disturbing measure under consideration in Parliament this month. The government has proposed a new ratings system where students would give popularity (or unpopularity) rankings of schools. The Higher Education and Research Bill advocated by Universities Minister Jo Johnson has made it to a legislative committee. The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) imposes the system on universities which will be awarded gold, silver or bronze medals on the basis of a range of factors including student satisfaction, teaching excellence and preparation for the world of work. It is an effort to move beyond just ranking universities by their research excellence. Many academics have denounced the TEF as an obvious effort to coerce universities into yielding to demands from students on curriculum and other issues. The system would add new pressures on schools to yield to demands of students on curriculum and policies. It is turning over higher education to a type of academic social media where quality is based on your number of “likes.” If students “like” Laurette University more than Oxford, does that make Laurette the better school?
I may fall into a dwindling minority of academics but I believe that academic excellence is measured not in the popularity but the content of programs. Indeed, it is widely believed that the easiest way to increase teaching evaluations is to reduce work and spoon feed students. However, such courses fall short in training students in critical thinking and educating them in a broad range of works. The more that a teacher assigns or demands, the less popular they can become. That places teachers in tough positions. We have an ethical duty to offer the best possible education to our students; not the most popular. However, schools administrators can consciously or unconsciously favor popular teachers over teachers who may be pushing students to achieve more in their classes.
This is not to say that popular teachers achieve success through pandering. There are plenty of popular teachers who maintain high quality courses. Moreover, teaching evaluations are important and the best administrators distinguish between comments about the workload and comments revealing serious deficiencies in communicating a subject. Yet, some of my best teachers were the least popular at the University of Chicago, including nobel laureates who were notoriously bad teachers but brilliant minds.
The erosion of intellectual values and discipline is threatening the foundation for American academia. The TEF raises the question of how to evaluate a school. A school can be incredibly popular by yielding to demands on curriculum and conforming to the whims of students. It is a business model of education that is all too familiar to academicians today. Universities administrators tend to gradually view their schools like business and students like customers buying a commodity. As customer demands change (like those of online courses), administrators tend to demand changes in the “product.” However, education is not a commodity that is driven solely by market forces. It is based on a foundation of intellectual work and seeks to create well-educated graduates who appreciate the great works as well as critical thinking.
The fear is that programs like the TEF will add to already mounting pressure to maintain high teaching evaluations at all costs. If universities are rated based on their popularity (or in significant part on popularity), the market pressures will do the rest. You can have education by popular design and whim. All three criteria — student satisfaction, teaching excellence and preparation for the world of work — are detached from the depth and scope of knowledge taught in these classes. Learning Descartes or Plato may not be popular or work-related, but these are classic works that benefit students intellectually. College is not supposed to be a trade school. It is supposed to allow students to explore the world of ideas and obtain a depth of knowledge that is essential for truly educated person.
There is increasing pressure to create a type of tailored-on-demand education for each student, rejecting the notion of a core curriculum set by the faculty. That trend will gradually kill fields deemed unnecessary or irrelevant or simply not fun. Education will then become simply entertainment or occupational training.
I share the alarm of our British cousins about this ill-conceived plan. England has been an intellectual leader of the world for generations. Parliament should not allow the government to destroy one of the defining elements of English culture and history.