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What's going on in Higher Education?

Week commencing 22/05/17

Will the TEF do serious damage or just puncture a few egos?

The Guardian has a new series called 2VCs, where two Vice Chancellors are brought together to discuss the state of higher education in the UK. In a recent interview, the VCs of Exeter and Middlesex Universities express their divergent opinions on the ideology behind, and potential impact of, the Teaching Excellence Framework.

There are many controversial aspects of the Framework, which will be managed by the new Office for Students. The feature which seems to most acutely divide these two high-profile sector figures, however, is the process of benchmarking, as the entry qualifications, background, age, ethnicity and subject area of its students are factored into their scores. This might make for interesting results, as Sir Steve Smith, VC at Exeter, explains. He uses the example of two universities: ‘one a famous Russell Group University, and the second a strong modern university. The second university gets positive flags in the TEF because it exceeds its benchmarks, which score in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It gets a gold ranking. The Russell group institution doesn’t exceed its benchmarks and doesn’t get a gold, but its raw scores are in the 80s and 90s’. Many league tables have faced criticism for not taking into account a ‘value-added’ metric, and so this might be considered fairer than an absolute ranking.

Smith also points out that to measure and rank institutions by ‘excellence’ is no new phenomena, since the Research Excellence Framework is a well-established feature of the academic landscape. Over its 31 years this has served, he claims, to entrench the UK’s reputation as a world leader in the industry. To introduce an equivalent for teaching is therefore demonstrative of the Government’s desire to ‘rebalance the focus of institutions towards teaching’. The main counter-argument levelled here is that the metrics used to measure teaching excellence are not nearly as robust as those which contribute to the REF.


Cambridge and the General Election

Wonkhe, the online hub of perspectives on higher education policy, people and politics, has launched a new series visiting university towns in the run up to the general election to gauge the dynamics of their constituencies. First up was Cambridge, where 25% eligible voters are students. The swing seat was won by Daniel Zeichner for Labour in 2015, by a slim majority of 599 seats. The Higher Education Policy Institute has recently found that the majority of students do not vote in their term-time seat, but the article notes that ‘a politically savvy student population in Cambridge may wish to take advantage of the marginal nature of the seat and vote there to have the greatest impact’. Zeichner took the seat from Julian Huppert, who is fighting to win it back on behalf of the Lib Dems.

Brexit is likely to be a popular topic in hustings considering that 74% of Cambridge voted to remain in the EU in the referendum, the highest proportion in the country. Zeichner will therefore be stressing that he defied the Labour Party whip to vote against Article 50. Huppert may have an advantage here, since the Lib Dems have announced that they would call a referendum on the terms of Brexit. Cambridge constituents also rank homelessness, house prices and transport highly on their list of priorities.

The article quotes a recent poll which expects the vote to ‘split three ways: Labour at 34%, the Lib Dems at 32%, and the Tories not far behind on 27%’. You can hear from all the candidates on the Cambridge campus next Wednesday 31st May. Free tickets are available here

 

Highlights from the week’s papers

How worried should universities be about the general election? Two Vice Chancellors discuss the potential impact of a new administration on HE policy.

Where could students impact the 2017 General Election? This interactive map looks at marginal seats in university towns.

 

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