How the Faiz Siddiqui case reveals the limitations of the TEF
Tuesday, December 06, 2016
What may seem remarkable to outside observers is that Siddiqui seems, objectively, like a success story. He attained a 2.1 from one of the world's top universities. He went on to train as a solicitor. On the key teaching metrics of TEF - retention, degree classification, employability - he ticks the boxes. And yet these generic measures of teaching quality are not representative of his experience. As he argues in his claim for £1 million lost earnings, that few marks between his 2.1 and a First mattered in defeating his dream of becoming a commercial barrister.
Whether Siddiqui has a valid case against his tutors and institution, and whether his teaching genuinely was poor, is a matter for the court to decide. However, it's also a provocation to reflect on teaching in general and the extent to which we support those who occupy a middle ground between absolute success (epitomised by the First-class Oxford candidate) and failure. I certainly do not buy into Jo Johnson's narrative that HE teaching is 'lamentable' (see Liz Morrish for an exellent critique of this, and other myths). However, if I am honest with myself, when I reflect on my practice with own students from various institutions with intakes at both the top and bottom of the student cohort, I tend to expend most energy on students at the extremes, which are picked up in TEF metrics: the obvious high fliers and those who are at risk of dropping out.
That brilliant student who emails me at two in the morning with some challenging question about Foucault's view of the literary author - he or she has got my ear.
That student who is scraping by or even failing - I will work hard with him or her and call on additional support to push, cajole, nudge or drag him or her over the line (this is something we do repeatedly, and on the whole very well, at the Open University).
It's students like Siddiqui who are most at risk of falling from my radar, given my humanly limited time and enthusiasm. The students who are all to easily missed are those who are, to borrow an economic metaphor, the just about managing.
While it may not always seem like in when labouring under the weight of groaning inboxes, a large proportion of the student body do get by without substantially 'bothering' their teachers with 'problems' or without overt appeals for motivational support. Sometimes students coast on their inherent intellect. Sometimes students fudge through with all nighters. Most often they work genuinely hard and independently and pull themselves along through sheer abundance of effort. These are the students I think less about, the ones who never (for various reasons) explicitly reach out for help. Maybe this is because at the time we think of them as successful relative to the rest. It's only with hindsight, the sort that Siddiqui is bringing to bear in his court case 16 years after his graduation, that we might reflect on their failure relative to their own potential.
The just-about-managings are those who we could do even more for if we had resources to do so (something the TEF certainly won't correct). They are the mid 2.1 student who might, with a bit of pushing and proactive engagement, push to a First. Or the student who is comfortably passing with ever quite excelling, even though there may be latent talent waiting to be unlocked. Despite the best of wills, these students are all too easily missed. Speaking to colleagues, I know I'm not alone in feeling this.
On its current basis, TEF will do nothing to incentivise universities to address this middle ground where really meaningful teaching can happen. VCs at the lower end will be very focused on boosting retention, progression and pass rates. At the OU for instance, with a very atypical student intake, our degree completion statistics look pretty poor - but they don't tell the whole story, as many students finish early because after a couple of years we've given them the confidence or skills to step back into mainstream education, or to boost their career. The OU and similar providers may need to offer more named exit points before degree level, to boost TEF metrics. However, this framework will also give more opportunities for the middling students to quit before their race is run, to let them go early with some success rather than pushing them as far as their talents will take them.
For Russell Group VCs, a different pressure applies. With so many students graduating with good (2.1 or higher) degrees, employability and their differentiation in the marketplace come from the additional extra-curricular opportunities. Sports, drama, volunteering are all vital parts of the student experience. But these are also opportunities for students who are not at risk of failure to divert into other things rather than pressing to excel academically. Despite their split attention spans, or indeed because of them, they are heralded as successful multitaskers ideally equipped for the work hard, play hard city of London.
The TEF is not a solution for the students who comprise the silent majority in the sector. Nor indeed is it meant to be. Its interest is in the bottom and top: forcing some institutions out of the market altogether, while bolstering the ability of elite universities to attract high paying international students. It's an economic not pedagogic tool. If we want to see genuine pedagogic gains, we need to look and think about what we do not at the marginal successes or failures, but those who, having attained the baseline standard, could be pushed to make incremental gains. The TEF will make it harder, not easier, to concentrate our attention on these.