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.