Opinion & Features

Triumph of the box-tickers

The old Soviet system of over-bureaucratisation did not die with the USSR; it transmigrated into Britain’s higher education system.

When I started lecturing nearly 40 years ago, universities were responsible to the University Grants Committee, a benign set of mandarins in London who exercised a hands-off supervision of British universities. Academics were largely free to get on with their own work, which was mainly teaching the 10 per cent of the population who went to university on a grant paid for by the state, and writing research papers and books.

In so far as anyone worried about assessing the quality of such work, it was assumed that the degree results reflected the teaching, while the peer-reviewing process validated the research.

The system reflected the intellectual self-confidence of an elite higher education system which, overall, relied on the professional pride of its practitioners. It was an ecosystem that Blessed John Henry Newman would have recognised as an organic development of his own Idea of a University. Such attitudes did not survive the expansion of the higher education system in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The Thatcher governments were profoundly suspicious of the professions, regarding them as the middle-class equivalent of the trades union “closed shop”.

They were determined to open them up to competition. Measures were introduced to assess the quality of research and teaching, but as the former was rewarded financially and the latter was not – and human nature being what it is – universities tended to concentrate more on research. It was not that they neglected teaching, but if their research stars needed more time for work that would bring in large sums of money from the quinquennial Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) then they would be given it, and postgraduates would be brought in to teach.

This was never in the spirit of Newman’s philosophy of education, where communities of scholars worked with students to pass on the best our culture had produced, and to nurture the image of God in all of us. At best, it assumed that the research would “trickle down” into teaching. The RAE produced university rankings which encouraged this sort of focus. But once fees were raised, especially once they were raised to £9,000 a year, questions were asked about how the 40 per cent of young people going to university were being educated. Time, then, to roll out the bureaucracy in the form of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

When the RAE was first introduced, complaints were made that it did not really measure the quality of research, as the panels required to read it did not have the required expertise in all the areas needed.

Similar complaints have been heard about the TEF. It purports to measure the quality of teaching, but the metrics it uses focus on graduate employment, completion rates, student satisfaction – so, say its critics, it cannot do what it claims to do. I suspect that if the TEF were replaced by an Ofsted-style system, the complaints would be even louder. But the chosen factors are, from Newman’s point of view, proxies for measuring teaching by its result. Teaching, as Newman knew, was more than what happened in classrooms and laboratories; it was about engaging students in a love of learning as a way of developing them to be fully rounded people who could make their contribution to God’s world. If students drop out early, or fail to complete their three years, or are unable to find employment, then moral questions arise as to why we in universities are charging them large fees. That, in turn, forces us to focus as much on the student experience as we have on our own research.

At St Mary’s University, Twickenham, we regard the award of a silver in the TEF as a vindication of our Catholic ethos of valuing every student as a unique individual made in the image of God. Knowledge is not detached from the wider context of being a child of God with a unique destiny. Students have a personal tutor, who is their first port of call, but we also have a wellbeing centre and the chaplaincy, recognising the wider dimensions of the student’s experience.

It is important to educate and stretch the intellect, but not at the expense of the wider person. It is perhaps no accident that some of the smaller, Church-founded universities, with their focus on values derived from our Christian beliefs, should have out-performed some of the bigger, research-intensive universities from the famed Russell Group in the TEF.

For a Catholic foundation, there is no division between concentration of research and teaching excellence. Here, we pass on the best that Christian civilisation has had to offer, and we add our mite to it, to the greater glory of God. St Mary’s practice is informed by our Catholic values of respect, integrity and generosity of spirit, and it is good to see the outcome of that.

Professor John Charmley is pro vice-chancellor for academic strategy at St Mary’s University, Twickenham