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

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Why the OU is right not to enter the TEF

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Writing in the Times Higher, the vice-chancellor of the Open University, Peter Horrocks, has explained why the OU will not be entering the TEF in this initial cycle. His arguments are absolutely justified. Having seen some of the strategy documents floating around the institution prior to this decision, it's clear that the OU would have been attempting to bash the proverbial square peg into a rigid, round hole. Or perhaps the more accurate metaphor, given the OU's vast and amorphous student cohort, would that of trying to nail jelly to the wall.

For the standard college-leaving, three-year undergraduate, success has a particular shape as far as TEF construes it: completing the degree and employment at the end of it. But the TEF simply doesn't account for the types of students the OU takes in, the journey they go on with us, and the many ways in which 'success' may occur in a typical six-year part-time degree.

Unfortunately, retention and degree completion are scores on which, on the face of it, the OU does quite badly. Only around 13% who start with us complete a degree. But while there are numerous ways in which the OU needs to improve its approaches to personalised teaching and support (there have been several recent pedagogically-destructive fiascoes that I won't go into here), this headline number does not mean that we fail our students on the whole.

Many of our part-time students don't complete their degrees for reasons that we have very little or no control over: disability and illness, family circumstances, change in financial situation. Indeed, one common reason for not completing in my experience is a change in employment status. I've encountered many students who have begun studying part-time while working part-time in relatively low-paid jobs. Midway through, their OU modules have given them the confidence, transferable skills, and indicators of motivation and ability that lead employers to reward them with full time work or promotions. They no longer have time to study and so drop out mid-degree. Perversely, the very outcome that TEF wants to drive institutions to improve, students' employment prospects, is the thing that counts against the OU in a TEF measure of teaching excellence, retention.

Then there is the anecdotal evidence which shows that success can come in shapes and forms that don't line up nicely with the columns of an excel spreadsheet.

Consider the case of the student who came to one of my modules with a background of mental illness. This was a single parent, who had been in work but then stopped on health grounds. She studied the module. Failed. Studied it again. Passed. She left the institution at that point, because studying had served as a kind of therapy, and given her the confidence that she could dedicate herself to being the best possible parent to her kids by not going back to work, and that doing so was not a hallmark of her own inability.

Then there's the student who at school was told they were useless and would never succeed. She desperately wanted to go to university even so, but felt she was not good enough. She went into menial work, but then a few years later came to us. She studied for one module at level 1, realised she was actually very good indeed, and left us to go to the brick university that she had always craved.

Or what about the student of a colleague, who was terminally ill. That student finished his module, and then shortly afterwards, and very sadly, passed away. Later, a friend of the students told my colleague that he was convinced his friend had survived as long as he had because he wanted to complete his studies.

These are just three stories that immediately spring to my mind. If I dug through my back catalogue of students I've taught and farewell emails I've received, there would be many more. My colleagues could no doubt add many others still. They are touching, important cases - those that motivate us individually as educators, and that remind that the OU is one of the most powerful social engineering tools the country possesses.

None of these things would 'count' towards the TEF; all these non-completions would count against the OU. But only the most statistically-minded, hard-nosed, market-driven, minister could possibly think these are evidence of teaching failure. Unfortunately, in the absence of price indicators of quality in the rigged non-market of Higher Education, TEF is designed to bundle an institution into a single rankable number that can be plucked from the shelves. But students and institutions are not numbers, and education is not always about employment or even getting a degree certificate. We need a TEF which allows for the uniqueness of each institution and its intake, and that counts students as humans, not beans.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:17 pm


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