A framework for assessing excellent teaching

Imagine that you are in government, a conservative government.  You want to increase participation in higher education but you want to maintain quality.  ‘Challenger institutions’ will gladly increase their student numbers, but you’d like to incentivise better teaching for the whole sector through making funding linked to better quality.  In 2015 you’d get the department to come up with a TEF. In the late 1980s, you’d have to leave the job to your funding councils…

The 1988 Education Reform Act fundamentally changed the landscape of higher education funding and regulation. For now, the binary line was retained.  For universities the UGC was replaced by the UFC (an act that many predicted was the end of the buffer between government and universities). The act incorporated the polytechnics and colleges – removing them from local authority control – and a new funding body, PCFC, was created.  Looking back, many have noted that the provisions of the 1988 act were a more important moment for the polytechnics than the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 that did away with the binary line.

PCFC were told by Kenneth Baker to look at quality of teaching in allocating funds.  He wrote to them:

“I look to the Council to develop further indicators of both the quality and quantity of institutions’ teaching and should be grateful if it would … consider how these might be used as an input to its funding policies and decisions”
(quoted in PCFC 1990 p7)

PCFC set up a committee of enquiry chaired by Baroness Warnock, then Mistress at Girton College, with the following terms of reference:

(a) to identify characteristics of effective and efficient teaching;
(b) to identify which of these characteristics can be developed as indicators of teaching quality;
(c) to suggest the means by which institutions could demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching and the promotion of students’ learning;
(d) to advise on possible strategies for the Council which would serve to raise the quality of teaching. These might include procedures for monitoring and evaluating outcomes, and funding mechanisms.
(PCFC 1990 p7)

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The committee’s report is short and clear.  Although accused of being too philosophical, it manages to include clear statements about teaching, how it should be taken seriously in the institution, issues for students and employers and then how to demonstrate quality.

The committee saw their principles in a framework:

(a) that ‘teaching’ must be interpreted broadly;
(b) that teaching must be responsive to students’ needs;
(c) that the conditions necessary for good teaching must be taken seriously, their satisfaction given priority at every level of institutional activity.
(PCFC 1990 p11)

The conditions  are spelt out in a further framework regarding curriculum, staff development, student and employer engagement and self-evaluation.  The committee notes that the PCFC ‘if seeking to identify excellence in teaching, must look above all for evidence of commitment to such  excellence, not just on paper, but throughout the management and practices of the institution’ (PCFC p13).

The committee’s advice is given in broad terms, recommending six strategies that PCFC might use.  These included setting minimum conditions for teaching quality; teaching enhancement; self-evaluation; monitoring of teaching strategies.  The committee also suggested that PCFC might look at how excellence might be related to an institution’s ethos.  One strategy is worth looking at further; the committee suggested the promotion of quantifiable and other information by which progress and achievement can be demonstrated.

Quantifiable Information

The late 1980s were a time of Performance Indicators.  The committee drew on both existing and developing work in framing its strategy. Institutions would have their own criteria to measure the quality of its teaching.  The committee suggested that PCFC ‘will wish to use comparative national data both between institutions and over time to make possible realistic and well-founded comparisons’.

The committee supported the use of data on:

student progress, satisfaction and subsequent employment; expenditure on staff development; the cost of a course compared to the degree results obtained; and completion rates
(PCFC 1990 p29)

25 Years later, we are unlikely to see expenditure on staff development in the TEF, but the other indicators?.  The committee also looked forward to further work on that PCFC was doing on measuring value-added…

The report shows the quality you’d expect from the committee’s exalted membership and the 22 months they took to complete it.  Much of the report’s work underpinned the quality assurance system that followed the abolition of the binary divide, but the direct link between quality and teaching funding never came (as opposed to funding streams such as FDTL or special projects such as CETLs).   There’s much to commend to contemporary policy makers, especially those thinking about TEF, in this 25 year old report.


PCFC (1990) Teaching Quality – Report of the Committee of Enquiry Appointed  by the Council,


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