Look them in the eye and say that

Exciting news folks! The Government’s implementation response to the technical consultation on year two of the Teaching Excellent Framework is out. Don’t all look at once- YOU’LL CRASH THE SERVERS.

Sensibly sensing that this news wasn’t the sexiest to be spun into Education correspondent inboxes that day, the spinners obviously got hold of the headlines at the last minute and converted TEF categories into Olympic metal- leaving most of the capital’s ex-polytechnics with a paltry bronze around their neck as thanks for work on propping up the Government’s figures on widening access and educating the majority of the UK’s BME students.

The news on fees also caught the eye of most of the press, as it always does- but it’s the role of the “student voice” that we’ve ended up with that’s so disappointing. QAA institutional review has given students the opportunity to submit a Student Submission for some years now, and as well as being right in principle that the user/consumer has a guaranteed chance feed in, to the resultant tales of long standing problems being fixed and investment suddenly going in to things students know help are myriad. The QAA, NUS, Students’ Unions and Vice Chancellors all agree that the process has been a force for good. So surely the equivalent will be weaved into the TEF. Surely?

Not quite. “We recognise the important role that the student voice can play in providing additional information about a provider’s teaching”, begins paragraph 91, but “we do not consider a mandatory student submission is appropriate”. And why has the DfE come to this view? The first excuse is the emergent diversity of the sector. “This could disadvantage alternative providers and others without a student union”, ignoring that the QAA has spent the best part of a decade getting around this problem and presumably blithely accepting that there are “higher education” providers where there isn’t any organised student voice at all- as if that’s somehow acceptable.

But from there on it gets a bit more sinister. “This could disadvantage… providers … where a student union chose to boycott the TEF, or where the student union was engaged in a political dispute with its provider on a matter unconnected to teaching”. These are again now new issues- there have always been a tiny minority of student submissions either missing or clouded by other relationship issues. But the QAA has always recognised that on balance this shouldn’t mean that students aren’t afforded the right to submit their views independently, and found ways around it- precisely because of the positive power that the process of having an independent student advocate voice in the process can have.

But where the QAA rebuffed childish arguments from private providers and traditional sector academic registrars who regard challenge as impertinent, the DfE have caved in at the first hurdle. ‘We care about students’, says the Government, ‘but not enough for students to be on the board of the Office for Students’ and ‘not enough for students to have the right to help evaluate their institution’. In doing so they not only trash decades of expertise and robust practice built up in the profession of student representation, they threaten real ideas woven into the fabric of UK HE- of co-production of education, of challenge to authority and received wisdom, and of decisions made in the glare of public scrutiny. Things that most senior academics used to believe in.

NUS’ mixed signals haven’t helped- publicly declaring non-cooperation with the TEF whilst encouraging students’ unions to respond to the technical consultation hardly helps- but it’s the submissions that must have led to all this that are the most worrying. To those senior managers in Universities that responded to the consultation with the avowed intention of taking away the right of students to submit evidence to the TEF, my challenge is simple. Imagine sitting in front of your Governing Body or your Students’ Union or even a mirror, eye ball to eye ball, and justifying this position.

And when you realise that this is one of those situations that the last paragraph of animal farm is getting at, write to your SU and voluntarily guarantee them the right to submit into your TEF uncensored. You’ll sleep better at night.


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