A Tale of Two Proxies

The Green Paper Fulfilling Our Potential (BIS 2005) invites English Higher Education to accept the notion of proxy measures for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), but further dismantles the proxy measures that have been in place for the consideration of taught degree awarding powers and university title.    On the face of it, this is another contradiction  in English higher education policy.

The  principles of the TEF are described, the rationale is clear; to provide information on teaching excellence which will provide incentives for universities to rebalance their business towards teaching.  We are told;

There is evidence to suggest ‘strong orientations towards research often reveal a weak emphasis on teaching, and vice versa’

with a reference to the very well respected Graham Gibbs paper Dimensions of Quality for this evidence.  Gibbs’ paper has been much cited in the run-up to the TEF announcement as it addresses indicators that could be used to assess quality. The ‘evidence’ about orientations of research in his paper is cited to doubt:

that measures of research activity or performance in the environment students study within are not, on their own, valid indicators of educational quality (Gibbs 2010:29)

For the concern in the Green paper is

However, at present students and employers must rely on imperfect proxies rather than a robust assessment of teaching quality (BIS 2015:20)

This seems clear – we should avoid ‘imperfect proxies’ – much rather we should have a ‘robust assessment’.  But, when we get to the TEF panels, we learn they will use metrics which provide a “useable measure of or proxy for teaching quality”. The first ones proposed; Employment, Progression and Satisfaction are, as they acknowledge proxies.  So institutional evidence will also be considered as well.  But that doesn’t stop them being proxies.  All three were considered by Gibbs and he raises concerns about all of them.  So we must really hope that better proxies can be found for the TEF and fast.

I contrast the reliance on proxies for the TEF with the abandonment of proxies in degree awarding powers and university title.  When the criteria for these were first formulated in the post-binary world, it was clear that many of them were proxies for an assessment of stability and previous success.  We were then in a sector that had no appetite for institutional failure – HEFCE having to force mergers where institutions were failing (not all mergers were for failing places, of course).  In addition to criteria about being a self-critical academic institution, the size and length of time criteria were proxies for both financial and academic credibility.  If a place could manage to get to 5000 students, and work with a validating university for 5 years, it was likely to be sound.  it was also unlikely to fall over, and could hope with reductions in one or other of its markets (yes, there were markets before £9k fees). As it was stable, it would be less likely to do risky things that would damage its reputation, and therefore the proxy measures reinforced the criteria.  Now these are to be removed, such that a provider might apply for powers in its third year of operation.


If the provider was traditional about its business (the intention, of course, is that they won’t) students will still only be in their second year of study when they apply for degree awarding powers. The application could be assessed without a student having started a dissertation or sat a final exam, let alone be awarded a degree. The proxy measures of size and time would have made that impossible.

Government is asking us whether we think a risk-based approach to DAPs is a good one.  I will happily answer that I think we should retain the proxies here, just as I will answer that I do not think they will find satisfactory proxies for the TEF.  I’m happy with that contradiction, just as they are happy with its reverse….


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