Many UK universities are renowned for their world leading research. Maintaining these high standards of teaching is crucial in ensuring this success continues over the long term.
The Royal Society has responded to the Government’s higher education Green Paper, welcoming the Government’s laudable aims of improving the quality of teaching, strengthening the employability of graduates and widening participation.
While the Government’s aims are positive and clear, achieving them will be challenging, and there are a number of risks which we have detailed in our response. The government’s proposal for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) needs careful consideration to ensure it is robust, using valid measures of teaching quality while maintaining the confidence of the sector.
The Government will need to demonstrate that the benefits of an effective TEF would outweigh any additional costs or burdens that it generates for institutions.
The sector has been working for a number of years to improve teaching quality and widen participation. Any new arrangements should build on systems which have already been developed and avoid eroding any gains that have been made. These systems include internal peer view, external examination and course accreditation.
Alternatively, the TEF could focus on assessing the measures universities are putting in place to improve teaching quality. However, it will also be important to ensure that any additional bureaucratic burden on academics is limited, so they can focus on maintaining excellence in their teaching and research.
It is also vital for the TEF to be discipline specific as soon as possible. The various disciplines can have vastly different styles of teaching, so students will need information at this level to be able to make informed choices on where best to study their chosen course. If TEF levels are awarded at the institution level, discipline-specific information will need to be aggregated carefully to avoid distortions, for example disincentives to investment in improving higher-cost subjects.
Filling the future demand for STEM skills will require more places in STEM courses, at either new or existing providers. However, existing providers have so far been less likely to offer high-cost courses, limiting their contribution to filling skills gaps. The entry arrangements for new providers should take this into account. The expansion of existing institutions which currently provide excellent STEM courses should also be considered.
The UK’s strength in research is in many cases complementary to maintaining high standards in teaching. With the teaching and research functions so interconnected, plans to separate HEFCE’s teaching and research oversight roles risks undermining this important link.
The Society has already welcomed the changes to the research architecture proposed in the Nurse Review, which the Green Paper complements. It is positive to see that the dual support system and autonomy of Innovate UK is to be maintained. With many details still to be worked out, the Green Paper marks the start of a conversation between the Government and the research community. The Government will need to be transparent and consultative throughout this process. Any changes to the research architecture will also need to be matched by ongoing and ambitious investment to strengthen the UK’s research base.
Read the Royal Society’s full response to the Green Paper.