Learning Gain

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will apparently make an attempt to measure “learning gain”.  This gets right to the heart of the educative process, the essence of what a higher education means.  What we need, therefore, is another simplistic analogy…

Fairy Frieze

Fairy Frieze

I am redecorating a child’s bedroom (traditional summer holiday occupation). It’s one of the rooms we had decorated when we moved in 10 years ago, and which all of our daughters have occupied at some point.  We collectively chose a fairy theme (this analogy is not based on the issues of allowing a 4 year old’s fleeting fairy phase to determine long term judgements) and left the decorating company to get on with it.  Since then two other firms have done work which obliged them to redecorate portions of the room – recreating the original scheme.  I am taking it all down now, and reflecting as I go.

When each of the three decoration phases were completed, we, as consumers, were able to evaluate the process.  We had information about cost, time, appearance, ease of working with the contractor (probably a metric about cups of tea) which we could put into a simple matrix.  As it turned out, broadly they were all similar in terms of quality and cost – on the surface you couldn’t tell much difference between their outputs.  It’s fair to say that ease of working with the decorator was the major difference between the three.

Now, I have a new criterion.  How easy is it to get the wallpaper off.  Here I have a clear winner.  The work of the first company is far easier to undo than the latter two (who have used adhesives of remarkable durability).  Suddenly, under a specific set of circumstances – not the normal ones for my appreciation of the decorating – I am delighted with company A and cursing (in different measures) the other two companies.

If I had sensibly rated my decorators, maybe my evaluation criteria should have included future use, change and adaptability.  I might have naively thought that absolute durability or inflexibility (under assault from all sorts of attempts to remove) would have been a winner.

So, here’s the challenge for the TEF.  What will it measure and when?  In the UK we are very keen on recent data: our NSS is undertaken when students are still on the course, the DLHE is done after 6 months.  When is the right point to measure teaching excellence – right then and there, or ten years afterwards?

Naming of Universities

And today we have naming of universities…  When I talk about history of universities I pause to explore the difference in naming conventions for universities between different countries.  If you look at the most famous universities in the US, they’re fairly likely to be named after someone.  In the UK they’re mostly named after the town or city they’re in.  How did this difference happen?

The early universities emerged; a guild of either students or teachers or teachers and students together arose.  Charters and agreements were made with the collective, distinguished by the place that they were at.  So, the Chancellor, Masters and scholars of Oxford were recognised as a corporation.  From the outset, the university name was linked with the place.   Later foundations could happen through the emergence model, increasingly through a deliberate act supported by the monarch.  In 1386 Elector Rupert of the Palatine obtained papal permission to found a university;  German universities have a twin tradition, Heidelburg University is also known as the Ruperto Carola University.

Individual acts of philanthropy linked the names of donors explicitly on occasion.  The names of Robert de Sorbonne, John Balliol and Walter de Merton were associated with their colleges, but later colleges founded by kings, queens and bishops – effectively as the state – did not: there are no Stapeldon or Wykeham colleges.  But there was sufficient precedent for the settlers of Massachusetts who named their College after John Harvard who’d given money for their new college. Further colonial era foundations reflected both the names of donors and their locations.

Developments in the 19th century saw both increasing civic and donor-led foundations. Depending on the source of the impetus, naming conventions differed.  Donations of increasing munificence in the US saw the creation of universities such as Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, or Vassar.  In the UK, new foundations were colleges, unable to award degrees, and some carried their donors’ names, such as Owens or Mason.  However, the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge, coupled with the tradition of the Scottish universities, led Joseph Chamberlain to firmly commit to renaming Mason University College as the University of Birmingham.  It so happened that in doing so he erased the name of his former business competitor, Josiah Mason (whose portrait even appeared on the College seal) from the university.  The next wave of UK universities followed suit, so much so that as the 20th century went on, commemorative names were downgraded in favour of city names.

Mason UC

As well as Mason, the following people had UK HE institutions named after them, all of which changed to location-based names.

Queen Victoria

John Anderson

William Armstrong

Joseph Constantine

Mark Firth

Henry Hartley

John Owens

John Rutherford

The UK has, therefore, considerable experience in turning its back on naming universities after people.  There are a fair number remaining, sometimes at a stage removed, which you could describe as a rather mixed group of people.

Ernest Beckett

George Birkbeck

John Brookes

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Samuel Courtauld

St David

Robert Grosstesste

Owain Glyndŵr

St John

George Heriot

Thomas Holloway

Queen Mary

St Mary

St Mark

Simon de Montford

John Moores

John Henry Newman

John Ruskin

James Watt


Thomas Holloway: the UK’s one remaining eponymous major donor

Clearly many of these names are commemorative: neither those biblical figures nor medieval types knew anything of the universities that carry their names. In fact, few of these had a direct involvement with the institutions that bear their names, and only one, Thomas Holloway, among all those who were donors, had the same massive financial influence that either people like the Stanfords or Johns Hopkins did.

Meeting the CMA guidance – the 1930s option.

Who’d want a return to the 1930s? Clearly not a favourite decade for politicians to hark back to, what with economic depressions having to be dealt with by unhappy coalition governments. For higher education, though, there may be some things to be learnt. Fee income was still the largest source of income; government support was modest and hard to come by. There was still suspicion of ‘modern’ universities with their links to industry and lack of first-class facilities. But, they also had the answer to the issue of public information: the University Calendar.

Leeds Calendar

Each University produced a Calendar each year. They weren’t required to, but custom had evolved that this was what they did, and they followed broadly similar lines. They were publicly available accounts of the university, its activities and the courses they offered. Take a look through the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidance on consumer protection law and you’d find that a 1930s university publishing a Calendar would be mostly compliant.

The Calendar starts with an alamanc, key dates, often of committees but also deadlines for students to enrol, pay fees, register for exams. Then you get a list of committees and staff (this is what some of the remaining Calendars have boiled down to). Although this isn’t very interesting, it provides a public record of who the governors are, and the staff lists give you a clear indication of who your teachers are and what qualifications they have. That’s a tick for both HEFCE governance and CMA guidance. As an extra bonus, some Calendars print the home addresses of the staff – that’s probably on a par with giving out email addresses on websites.

For those who’d love to see differential fees, the Leeds calendar shows the increasing level of fees for science and technology courses.  And there’s a discount if you pay in advance:

Table of tuition fees - after the general composition fee had been paid

Table of tuition fees – after the general composition fee had been paid

Then you get regulations. Assuming that yours is a modern university and these are not in Latin, they are pretty clear and comprehensive. Sadly the content is not going to pass the CMA test for fair and balanced terms and conditions. Old regulations are endlessly amusing, here are some clauses from Leeds in 1939:

A student dismissed for idleness or misconduct will forfeit all fees and privileges

Students are not at liberty to publish, except with the specific consent of the head of the department, the results of research work done in the University, or to publish any matter given in the lectures

The latter would clearly fall foul of the CMA’s take on intellectual property.

The course regulations explain the required courses, giving the hours of lectures and workshops, a comprehensive timetable and the exact format of the examinations. Often a Calendar would bind in the previous year’s actual examination papers. There are a clear descriptions of the various fees – another tick for the CMA.

The Calendar gives you a list of graduates (a necessity for parliamentary elections) but also a statistical report on their numbers and class of degree. Some, such as Manchester, would include the Annual Report of the University, at which point you get a publications and grants report as well. The Financial Statement shows the perilous state of finances of your 1930s university, running successive deficits as a result of declining enrolments.

Sadly, one thing that your Calendar won’t help you with, is a complaints process. Not a chance.

I like University Calendars. They provided a concise and accurate guide to the University which was publicly available at modest cost. Probably, the only thing in them that would upset the CMA are the claims of the advertising they carried for companies.

‘More Means Worse’ is a misguided view – Jo Johnson, but…

First, the good news.  In his speech on 1 July, Jo Johnson said that more means worse is a misguided view.   He spoke about widening participation, and how the government wants universities to do more. His approach to tackling more means worse is linked to two core aspects of his proposals; better working with business and clearer demonstration of return on investment.

Closer partnership between universities and business will help us tackle the misguided view that ‘more means worse’ and ensure that the investment both students and taxpayers make in higher education provides visible returns.

I don’t think there is a neat academic-vocational continuum that you can place different subjects and degrees on.  In most cases you can study the same subject for different reasons  – you can take a law degree with a view to becoming a solicitor, or a politician or an academic or a human rights campaigner, or anything really.  Measuring a law degree only by the number of solicitors it eventually turns out, or by how much salary they earn one, or five or ten years after graduation seems quite narrow. Johnson proposes a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that will use outcome metrics, and will measure ‘learning gain’.  The TEF will drive out ‘bad teaching’ by these metrics – ie universities will concentrate on these things because the TEF will shine a light on them.  Trouble is, most of the things suggested so far sound exactly like the things currently in league tables.  Does the minister think that universities do not consider those things?  He should get BIS officials to collate reports on league tables sent to Councils and Board of Governors – they’ll see hundreds of schemes to improve ‘teaching’ in universities.  These include strategies on employability, student satisfaction, assessment (especially feedback) and sometimes even on the actual processes of learning and teaching.

Meanwhile, despite this being a speech including widening participation, Johnson didn’t have time to mention that BIS were launching a consultation that very same day on ‘rebalancing’ who pays for disabled students’ non-medical support (ie to abolish it for most students and make the universities pay under their duty to make adjustments).   More understandable was his failure to acknowledge that 1 July was the implementation date for the Prevent duty guidelines for a whole slew of public authorities except the universities – as the Home Office still can’t find the form of words it wants to regulate external speakers with.