Patrick Garratt

Patrick Garratt is the Edinburgh University Students' Association Vice President Academic Affairs

Higher education policy as a reflection of values



Over the past few months the UK Government - despite the unfathomably profound repercussions for British society due to Brexit – have been pushing on full steam ahead with their overarching changes to the higher education sector.  Many of you may have not been following this for several reasons.  Firstly, the Government went through with its second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill in July – a time when students are on their summer break from University.  Secondly, the technical jargon of higher education policy - to no one’s surprise - fails to engage students.  It sounds immensely boring, and is far from a barrel of laughs. 


A large part of this Higher Education Bill is about the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). TEF is a criteria for teaching which effectively measures teaching quality according to graduate employment outcomes.  It aligns the quality of teaching with the extent to which employers can have an input into in certain courses, and to the degree that other course directly promote and enhance employability. However, if you are working part time in non-graduate job six months after graduation, this should not suggest that you were taught poorly. Moreover, it uses student satisfaction as a metric for good teaching.  Student satisfaction is an arbitrary metric, and not one suitable to assess teaching quality.  


In 2010, the Browne Review established a clear, albeit staggered road towards the full-throttle commodification of higher education in the UK, and students were clearly aware that universities were going to be charged exponentially higher fees.  At this time, most students clearly understood what was going on. This was about the Government wanting to take the burden of higher education funding off the tax-payer, to then regressively placing that burden upon students themselves.  In 2016, the discourse has sadly been transformed from debating not only the extent to which higher education should be monetised, but also to whether or not the value of teaching should be directly linked to notions of employability.  This is what can get lost in the nit-picking of any policy discussion: discussions about ‘teaching quality’ might sound dry, but the debate is ultimately about values.

By focusing on employability we are on the road to fundamentally subverting the main purpose of higher education: a platform through which civic life is enhanced by viewing education as a public good.  Instead of perceiving your education as a long-term investment on your own human capital, view your education specifically through the lens of sharing knowledge and learning new skills for their own sake. This is a point that students should not lose sight of at present, nor should in the coming months as this Higher Education Bill goes through the motions in Parliament.


Many students want to go to university to enhance their employability.  This is fair enough. Coming out with a degree is to an extent a reflection of a student’s ‘productivity’, allowing entry into graduate job which those without degrees may be unable to apply for.  However, not all students are coming out of university and going straight into graduate employment.  Most students in fact have been mugged off by a Government who have disingenuously, and without allusion to what academics and economists were telling them five years ago, sold students the false claim that getting a degree would ensure that upon leaving University they would almost automatically get a well-paid graduate job.


It should be pointed out from the outset of these blogs that the Scottish context is different.  Quality in the Scottish HE sector is measured differently, and as it stands Scottish universities are not engaging in the TEF in the same way English and Welsh universities are.  Scottish universities are far better than those in England and Wales at ensuring the pedagogical process is a collaborative affair between students and academics – students get a seat at the table when teaching quality is reviewed. This may sound immensely dry, but I will explain this in a later blog!


Over the next few weeks I will be blogging about the higher education reforms, why ‘metrics’ sound boring but matter more than words can describe, and particularly why the Scottish Higher Education sector should be able to wriggle out of the reforms currently being shamelessly imposed in England & Wales, and how it may be able to avoid engaging with the devil that is the TEF.  If you would like more information in relation to these blogs, please reach out to me, and I’ll be happy to direct you to relevant websites, writers and academics who are writing and blogging about this at the moment.



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