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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Browne Review: Teaching and Learning

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This is one of a series of posts in which I respond to the Browne review of higher education funding and student finance. Other posts look at the implications of the Browne review for postgraduates, and for the arts and humanities.

Entering into the new higher education marketplace, a logical assumption that students might make post-Browne is that if they are paying more, they should get more in return: more and better teachers, improved IT and library facilities, green and tranquil campus spaces to rival Harvard or Princeton. Had the Browne report been presented in an era before massive cuts to public spending, this might have been the case. A tuition fee market would force universities to compete for students, and to provide higher-quality, more attractive "products" as a result.

However, Browne was instigated before spending cuts became the sole focus of political debate. Launching the review in 2009, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson suggested its aim was to widen participation and simplify student support. By 2010, with the government's spending review imminent, Browne has become reconceptualised. No longer are tuition fees about improving higher education for all, but about making up a potential £4 billion cut in public funding. Exemplifying this change in attitude is Steve Smith, head of Universities UK. Like many VCs of research-intensive universities, Smith had been arguing for a free market in higher education long before the recession; after it, he found in Browne a handy scapegoat. He now argues that "Browne is not the cause of the reductions in state funding; it is an attempt to substitute other funding sources for lost government revenue."

My point in this political aside is not to be polemic (I have done polemic aplenty in my other blogs on Browne). Rather, it is to provide some context for Browne's ambitions for teaching and learning. Browne's headline vision is that:
HEIs actively compete for well informed, discerning students, on the basis of price and teaching quality, improving provision across the whole sector, within a framework that guarantees minimum standards.
In a scenario before spending cuts, improving quality would have been in the interests of universities, students, and government. In the present climate, however, tuition fee rises are necessary simply to keep universities from going backwards, since investment to improve quality will certainly not be available from government, which will distance itself from any complaints about teaching quality once resources reside with universities alone. The risk here is that universities that are already at the top of league tables will be able to sit back on their reputations, knowing that students will always want to come to the big names that are on the tips of employers' tongues: Durham, York, Exeter, UCL; they can thus use tuition fees to make up the shortfall in their income without correspondingly seeking to further improve the standard of their already good teaching. Universities lower down the pecking order, by contrast, which may begin by charging lower fees, will have to indebt themselves in order to invest in facilities and teaching that might potentially attract more students. It is not surprising that many commentators already foresee the closure of several poorer universities.

Aside from further polarising wealthy and poorer universities, what will be the consequences of tuition fee rises within the mainstream student experience? Browne says plenty about a regulatory framework - run by a new Higher Education Council - that will seek to guarantee teaching quality. However, he says little about how increased tuition fees should be spent to improve university education in practice.

One positive thing he does suggest, with which I agree, is that all university teachers should be trained and accredited to HEA standards. It is still shocking to think that it was not until the 1990s that any qualifications for university teaching even existed.

More vaguely, Browne adds that:
Institutions may want to include commitments to students on the minimum contact time with teachers that they will have and promise timely individual feedback on assignments. They may also choose to provide greater detail about class sizes or name the teachers who will be responsible for key courses. 
In the annual National Student Survey, students consistently rate assessment and feedback as the lowest of all the various measures of quality. In the 2010 survey, for example, only 65% were satisfied with the quality of assessment and feedback. However, feedback and assessment are highly intensive on staff time, especially when staff are pulled in different directions, between teaching and research. If marking a batch of class papers means missing the deadline for a major research grant application, then it is the class which is going to suffer. What is likely as a more general outcome of the Browne review is that UK higher education will split along US lines: postgraduate or postdoctoral staff will perform most of the teaching duties, whilst established faculty are employed in research-only positions. Well-known professors may be parachuted in to look good on prospectuses, but in practice teaching and research will be distinct streams. This may indeed improve the timeliness of feedback and assessment, and other direct measures of teaching success, but it will be at the expense of what differentiates holistic UK universities, with their strong tradition of research-led teaching, from their US counterparts.

Also worthy of note is the following caveat:
Students may decide to include commitments on attending a minimum number of classes or completing a minimum number of assessments per term. 
Whilst Browne's meaning here is somewhat ambiguous, I take this to imply that in return for being empowered to hold their universities to clearer standards and expectations, students should acknowledge their responsibility to engage with the requirements of their degree programmes. Whilst one would like to think that no student ought to need to promise to work, in practice some students do see their degrees as a way of subsidising extra-curricular life experiences. It would be hoped that students paying £7000 tuition fees would take increasing responsibility, and prioritise their academic work over their social life. However, things could turn the other way. Why should a teacher demand an essay from a student if that student, who is now a fully subscribed education consumer, does not want to submit it? Why should a student have to attend lectures, if he or she, having freely chosen to pay £7000, does not want to go? This caveat about "commitments" seems to be an attempt to force students to keep to their responsibilities to learn, even as they exploit their rights as consumers. However, even if students sign up to some sort of charter, what would be the ultimate consequences? Can one really see a university expelling a student who has failed one first year exam, and thus losing a potential £14 000 of future income? Under Browne, tuition fees will be paid directly to universities on behalf of students, rather than distributed from a national pool, whilst there will be no cap on the number of students universities are allowed to admit. This may mean that universities become unduly and detrimentally attached to a student's buying power, rather than their brain power, allowing students to resit courses for which they are unsuited when in the past they might have been dismissed from the university with their place taken by a more willing student.

Regardless of the effects of teaching and learning once students are at university, one of Browne's conclusions that I wholeheartedly endorse is the need for students to get more refined information about where their tuition fees are spent:
Most of the investment in higher education goes to institutions through a block grant and students have no sight of what it is buying. We want to put students at the heart of the system. Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education. ...Students will be better informed about the range of options available to them.
As I wrote in my essay on Tuition Fees and Contact Hours, data about student spending is woefully inadequate. For example, an undergraduate in the arts will typically have half as many contact hours as an undergraduate in the sciences. However, the arts student has no way of knowing how much of their tuition fee is spent on the resources that they may make significantly more use of, such as physical libraries. This information has to be made available, to allow students to choose between different modes of study. Some students may prefer more contact time, but correspondingly more proscribed courses without, for example, dissertations; others may like independent working but need to know that the study, library and IT facilities will be made available for them to do this.

However, there is another scenario. At the leading, established university at which I teach English Literature, student contact time is limited but focused. Although students may only have four tutorials per module per year, for example, these take place in small groups of eight rather than in large seminar classes. In terms of its outcomes on student learning, an hour's intensive, small group tuition is almost certainly better than several hours of larger group teaching. Because no student can escape discussion in a group of eight, students build their confidence and oral skills, whilst also learning to criticise authority (that is, myself) and to assert their own views and ideas; they build strong relationships with me, which often conclude in me writing them an informed job reference. Our students seem to recognise this. Although well aware that the amount of contact time they receive is limited, satisfaction scores on the courses on which I teach have not markedly dipped from the era of £1000 tuition fees, up to £3000 fees today.

However, Browne proposes that students discriminate between universities on an up-front basis. In their prospectuses, universities should make clear "Weekly hours of teaching contact time." If this is not tempered by describing the type of contact time as well, one can see the hallowed "contact hour" becoming the sole indicator of return on tuition fee investment. Regardless of whether University X gives 20 hours of lectures a week, whilst University Y gives 5 hours of small group tuition, more will be seen as better. This will be exacerbated as parents become increasingly involved in supporting their children through higher education. Although a student experiences university in a subjective and flexible way - in the case of mine, they recognise that the comparatively little contact time they have still works for them, regardless of what other courses are doing - parents look at their children's education from more objective standpoints. If their son or daughter is receiving less face time with tutors than their peers, parents may start to pressure universities to put quantity of tutor contact over quality.

As with assessment and feedback, it is not hard to envision that research and teaching will be split so as to meet the demand for more contact time. Instead of prominent but busy researchers giving a few lectures over the course of a year, a single teaching-only staff member will run an entire block of lectures on a more regular basis. It may well be that on quantitative measures, this improves the student experience, but it also fundamentally changes the nature of universities in the UK, so that instead of integrating teaching and research such that each university teaches to its research strengths or according to the specialisms of its lecturers, universities deliver formalised curricula in staid and uninspiring formats.

Of course, as with all my blogs on Browne, I may be guilty of an innate, academic conservatism. Just because successful universities have in the past been constituted in certain ways does not mean these are the right or best ways for the twenty-first century; just because I feel as a teacher that the buzz of a small group tutorial is worth more than an entire week of lectures does not mean that my students feel the same; just because students will become consumers of their education does not mean that they will automatically expect to be given easy degrees without having to commit to meet work deadlines or attend tuition. However, without being naive about the scale of the funding problem, I do believe that conservatism is the least worst standpoint when it comes to the UK's higher education sector.

The UK government has traditionally funded higher education at around 1.3% of GDP, compared to an average across OECD countries of 1.5%; the US spends 3.0% of GDP on higher education. Despite this comparative underfunding, UK higher education punches far above its weight in international league tables. In science, the UK is second only to the US in terms of the number of citations, making it by some way the most efficient programme in the world. Limited tuition fees have funded more university places over the last decade, and a record number of students now attend university. According to the NSS, 80% of students were satisfied with their experience in higher education. UK higher education is a flawed system - 80% satisfaction still leaves one in five unsatisfied; thousands of students miss out on university each year because of a lack of places; science is currently suffering from a "brain drain" as academics move abroad - but in spite of these flaws, it still largely works.

Changes certainly need to be made to keep it running this way. In an era before the spending review, government might feasibly have argued that increased tuition fees were necessary to allow public money to be focused on increasingly expensive research, rather than paying for student tuition, whilst a free market would allow the cap on student numbers to be lifted, preventing the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of students missing out on the university degrees that are, so government claims, essential in a modern economy.

After the spending cuts, though, the picture looks very different. Tuition fees will simply allow UK higher education to stand still at best - and may potentially damage a system that works well if imperfectly, at worst. The risks are enormous: a huge debt burden on young people, exclusion from higher education based on social background rather than merit, the closure of poorer universities unable to invest to attract students or unable to justify high fees, the elimination of swathes of courses in the arts and humanities, the severance of the link between teaching and research, an excessive focus on contact hours rather than those methods of tuition that experienced teachers know to be best. If I have one concern that encapsulates everything I have said across my blogs on the Browne review, it is that this risk we are taking with a functioning higher education system is not merited based on the potential rewards in an uncertain future. Will more students be able, even willing to come to university, as Browne promises? Will his reforms really widen rather than narrow access? Will they allow universities to focus their funding on research rather than teaching even as the latter becomes their primary income stream?

Whilst funding cuts changed the nature and outlook of Browne's review from one of markedly improving to simply maintaining higher education, Browne still concludes his report with an optimistic vision:
Our vision is not one of shoring up the current system. Instead we have aspired to propose reforms that will enhance the strengths of the higher education system, while enabling the widest number of students to benefit from the pleasures and opportunities of learning.
My vision is more qualified. With higher education starting from an already high platform of international esteem in research, and of teaching quality for students, it is hard to see how increased tuition fees and the slashing of public funding for higher education will help to elevate UK universities even higher. At best universities will maintain their standards whilst a generation of students takes on £30 000 plus of debt; at worst, our successful, internationally renowned university system will suffer irreversible changes and losses that no amount of future investment can make up.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:57 am


Blogger James Williamz said...


Great information in this post and I think this information has to be made available, to allow students to choose between different modes of study.

Alan Smith….
Maths private tutor

8:14 am  

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