English Government Proposes New Rating System For Universities

220px-Houses.of.parliament.overall.arpThere 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.

radcliffe_camera_oxford_-_oct_2006The 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.

33 thoughts on “English Government Proposes New Rating System For Universities”

  1. If students think they can rate their teachers, that means they think they know more than their teachers.

    So why are they paying to go to school?

    1. Steve57 – I always had my students do an anonymous survey at the end of every class. It helped me decide what I would keep and what I would change the next time I taught the course.

  2. I have an idea. Just close all institutions that call themselves “higher learning” and let the people sort it out.
    I’ve just about had it with anything or anyone associated with a “university”…. I thought they were there to “teach” stuff…. when did that go away. Sick of all of them.

  3. As someone who has both studied and taught in the British tertiary education system, I am really saddened and perplexed by this governmental urge, starting in the Thatcher era, to fix what ain’t broke. Britain’s system used to attract students from around the world. A succession of initiatives all justified in the language of business (productivity, market, etc.) have been battering down this system for years. I don’t have an instinctive aversion to talking about productivity or markets in academics, but I do object to the simple-minded transplanting of these notions without any thought about what needs to be changed to make them work as intended, or about whether there is even a problem in the first place.

  4. ExpatNJ,
    Your comment has me interested in knowing what value you find in this blog? It also reminds of the conclusion of the following parable:

    The Blind Men and the Elephant

    “O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
    For preacher and monk the honored name!
    For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
    Such folk see only one side of a thing.”


  5. As a Scientist, I have NEVER, EVER needed to use the works of Nietzsche, Plato, Shakespeare or any other ‘literary great’ in my work. These are – to me – useless courses that only take up time and tuition that students in a technical field could better use for relevant education.

    Go Stevens Tech!

    1. ExpatNJ – I have always contended that the university track is not for all people. Trade school or technical school fits their needs and desires best. Dropping out of high school and becoming a career criminal is best for some. However, those of us who have been in the university track know there are certain things all members of that group should know. They used to. Now they don’t. History majors at a major university in the United States are not required to take US History. When I was going to school that was a required course.

    2. Exactly, no liberal arts exposure to f&%ck up your world view. Creating a force of technocrats – brilliant!!

      Corporate, inhumane, unquestioning people

  6. I tried this very “rating” system in my senior year in high school. I chose to “vote down” the only English teacher (Ms. Westby) that was requiring college level work of her students. I went with a teacher that I knew wouldn’t require such a demanding workload. I graduated next to my friends that took Ms. Westby. Several of those students went on to Ivy League schools while I managed to get accepted at a 2nd tier University in Wisconsin. 7 months later I was humbled and on a flight to my Navy boot camp. My friends, well they went on to graduate and have successful careers. I sure showed them.

    When I finally returned to college while on active duty, the first course I took was the equivalent of the one I avoided in high school. I had matured and I realized the real world doesn’t favor those useful idiots that are only taught what to think.

  7. I went to SIU Edwardsville for one semester and had a woman teacher who smoked her cigarettes in class. We called her “Smoking Barb”. She was kind of a dumb thing and that one class encouraged me to go elsewhere. There needs to be some guidance for college level teachers. They do not need to be called “Professor” like they are on a high plane. The Ivy League thing is getting real old. I look down on those profs in particular because they think that their feces do not stink. Not many good “trial lawyers” come out of Harvard and Yale. They are real bad at picking juries. Our U.S. Supreme Court is bad. All but one went to Harvard or Yale and one guy went to Stanford. None ever tried a jury trial on behalf of a criminal defendant and none were trial lawyers. One tried cases as a trial judge. The rest were all social workers for appellate judges and perhaps worked as assistant attorney generals and whatnot.
    Private colleges and universities are too expensive now. Move to a state with good state run universities with low in state tuition and send your kids there.

    1. While reading your post I was reminded of how Joe Biden’s wife chooses to always be referred to as “Dr. Jill Biden.” I know a number of people who had assumed she was a medical doctor when in fact she has a doctorate in education, but still wants the title “Dr.” in all of her official references. She is proud of her accomplishment, but please.

  8. I’ve been thinking for years that there needs to be a paradigm in college education with the influence of the internet. Why have colleges at all? Wouldn’t a better system be for a teacher to offer his class online and have the students “build” their own college? Everyone would make out in this system. I’m not sure what the top teachers make per year, but suppose they could offer their class for $50 online. Now the whole world has the opportunity to be taught by this “best” teacher. If he reached 20,000 students, that’s $1M in the bank. The only thing you would need extra would be lab centers to fulfill that part of a class if needed.

    The best courses/teachers would draw in the most students and thus be recognized by the market.

    1. Exactly that has been happening, which is why land-based university enrollments are declining for students who seek knowledge, but still the institutions of choice for athletes, socialites, and goof-offs.

    2. This assumes kids know what they need and know how to build the stepping stones to becoming a critical thinker. I am not a believer. Perhaps this is why we now have college grads who are ignorant of American history, the Constitution, how our government works, etc.

      1. No it doesn’t assume that. The degree structure could still be the same. I didn’t need a counselor to tell what classes I needed back in 1987. It was all laid out by the college and the degree I wanted. The bonus with this, too would be you wouldn’t be blocked out of classes since there would be an unlimited amount of kids who could take it at the same time. Critical thinking came from the teachers that taught me, not the classes that I picked.

        I think you could do this even at the high school level and get rid of over paid teachers and administrators. Our kids could be taught by the best teachers and they would be the best because they would have the most students. We could get rid of school taxes and just have lab/exercise centers.

  9. I wonder if there is any connection with the loss of EU research funding for UK institutions once Brexit takes place.

  10. The death knell for educational institutions is mindless adherence to traditional structures. The academic core values must be maintained but energized on a regular basis by that indispensable ingredient, the student. The 60’s throughout the world infused the educational systems with new energy, regardless of all the nonsensical experiments. What worked has been kept and what didn’t work is now merely a historical curiosity. So, good for GB. Infuse the system with the opinions of the students. If the institutions are that strong they will benefit and be better off. If their credibility does not stand up to this sort of scrutiny, perhaps this is a shot across the bow. At one time Oxford and Cambridge were the penultimate institutions for economics. Now the London School of Economics is the preferred place to go. This is also true with most other disciplines and many of the universities throughout GB.

      1. Paul..thank you for the comment.
        I don’t use the word, but you caused me to look it up.
        I thought it meant second to none, but can see how the “second to the last” might be the understanding.

        Now I have one more term to go along with the likes of “peruse” which has a meaning almost opposite of most usage.

        1. Renegade – actually, it means second best. If you were the penultimate Girl Scout Cookie seller, there would only be one girl ahead of you. The word for top is Apex as in Apex Predator. That is easy to work into a conversation. It is harder to work “She was the Apex Girl Scout Cookie seller of her troop” into the conversation.

  11. Since the original universities were run by the students and the teachers paid by the number of students in their class, maybe it is time to go back to olden time. Maybe we should teach them what they want. If they succeed with that, then great. If they fail with that, well, they picked it.

  12. After seeing first the curriculum and then witnessing the conduct of a requisite course for undergrads at a major university, I was greatly perturbed. Our daughter would come home periodically for major holidays. She shared her accomplishments, but what I saw was alarming. The required work did not match the curriculum and certainly was not meeting the stated goal of the course.

    At my suggestion, our daughter and one other young lady, a National Merit Scholar, requested a meeting with the dean of the department. Unbeknownst to the dean’s office, I was invited to accompany them.

    As we entered the dean’s office, we discovered that the dean, provost, dean of students, the lead professor and three assistants were already in attendance.

    The dean and provost stepped back in surprise as I entered the room behind the young ladies.

    I can only imagine what the atmosphere would have been like for two sophomores facing that assembly without backup.

    After quietly listening to the discussion and witnessing the power plays which dismissed their concerns, I just leaned forward and gave my credentials and spoke to the failure to abide by a contract, the coercive nature of the gathering and then went down a litany of gross errors in the course work.

    Following the meeting, the course was immmediately restructured and credit given for grade errors.

    Yes, universities are to educate and form our young people…challenge them. But, there is also an immense power structure that needs to be held to account.

    Thanks to the GI Bill, I have a doctorate. During the trials of the master’s and doctorate work, I had several in-office confrontations with profs who went off the reservation. I could “afford” any retribution, most others couldn’t.

    So yes, evaluate the ones being paid to teach. If the process does produce spoiled little darlings, Darwin will ultimately prevail.

    As many Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and other grads have learned, the source of the degree has liitle influence once they hit the streets…many are surprised that management positions aren’t theirs for the taking. Just ask our daughter, a CFO with a land grant university degree and Ivy Leaguers working for her.

    1. Really enjoyed reading your post…..and wishing I had had someone like you in attendance as my advocate under similar circumstances.

  13. “Educated, well intentioned, good girl in our town.
    Wonder where I’d be today if she had loved me too.
    Probably be bitching about schools.
    Guess I owe it all to Pamela Brown.

    Pamela Brown was a ,,,,,university town.
    All the students seemed to be clowning around.
    Wonder where I’d be today had I gone to school.
    Probably be driving dorks and fools.

  14. Sounds like they should have hired Bryan May for that job. I’m sure all of you know why without being schooled.

  15. Yes, there is a strong tendency towards occupational training here with the so-called common core becoming ever more dissipated.

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