GeoEd: A Framework Too Far?

GeoEd: A Framework Too Far?

In this month’s edition of GeoEd, Sam Illingworth, former ECS PC representative and Lecturer of Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, talks about a new framework introduced by the UK government to measure the quality of teaching at higher education institutions. Although Sam explores the issue from a UK perspective, there is no doubt cross over within the European realm. Also, this post is a great opportunity to start a discussion, how is the quality of teaching across European Universities measured? We’d love to hear from you if you have a view on the newly proposed framework or if you can tell us more about how teaching excellence is measured in your country.

The UK government recently announced that a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would be introduced to UK universities. At the moment, the exact form of what this will look like is speculative, but it is expected that it will potentially use a set of “outcome-focussed” metrics to form the basis of financial incentives to improve university teaching. For example, those universities that perform well in TEF might be allowed to charge more than the current tuition fee cap of £9,000 per annum.

Whilst primary and secondary schools in the UK are used to having the quality of their teaching assessed via inspections from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), there has been something of a mixed reaction amongst UK academics as to whether or not the TEF is actually needed.

Aside from the fact that TEF will probably be a very costly exercise (some estimates of REF, the research equivalent of TEF were put at being in excess of £1 billion), it is difficult to imagine how you would accurately measure teaching excellence in universities, and if indeed there is any need to do so. After all, the 2015 UK National Student Survey reported that the majority of students are ‘satisfied’ with their university course, despite the £9,000 tuition fees.

Will TEF help lecturers wake up to better teaching practices? (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya)

Will TEF help lecturers wake up to better teaching practices? (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya)

However, would a TEF really be such a bad idea? Aside from the fact that it might be used as a further tool to ensure that the richest and most well attended universities keep on getting richer and more over subscribed, I think that there are a number of potential benefits to such a framework:

  1. It will encourage more peer-assessment amongst lecturers. Whilst previous attempts to enforce this have been a little heavy handed, learning from one another is an excellent way to develop your craft as a teacher.
  2. It will help to strengthen the ‘teaching track’ in academia as a route that is at least on a par with the more traditional ‘research track’. This in turn should also help to pave the way for more distinctive career paths. Just because you are a world-class researcher does not mean that you are a world-class teacher, but nor should you be punished / penalised for this if research is your main reason for employment and visa versa.
  3. It will help to place greater value on the importance of good teaching for retention rates etc. Given the amount of money that universities bring in from tuition fees, it is amazing that a greater value is not already placed on lecturers that excel in the role of teachers.
  4. It should provide a more useful comparison for students when applying to universities than the REF tables. After all, whilst as a student you want to attend a university with a good research reputation, it is far more important that you attend one that excels at teaching.

Obviously, in the field of the geosciences, there will be additional obstacles that must be overcome, for example how will lecturers be assessed on their ability to teach fieldwork skills, or to run successful residential trips? However, providing that the TEF is constructed following consultation with practicing lecturers and university administrators, these could all potentially be accounted for.

Hopefully TEF should inspire lecturers to think more like this (Photo Credit: BK)

Hopefully TEF should inspire lecturers to think more like this (Photo Credit: BK)

Whilst many may see TEF as a further box-ticking or hurdle-jumping exercise, if it is done correctly it offers university’s a fantastic opportunity to ensure that all of their students are being taught be lecturers who are good at lecturing, and who actually want to be there. The good lecturers have nothing to worry about (apart from potential promotion), those wanting to learn will have a framework to work towards, and those that don’t care about the quality of their delivery are probably better off out of the system anyway.

By Sam Illingworth, Science Communication Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

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Laura Roberts Artal is the Outreach and Dissemination Manager at The Water Innovation Hub (University of Sheffield). Laura also volunteers as the Associate Director of Communications for Geology for Global Development. She has also held a role in industry as Marketing Manager for PDS Ava (part of PDS Group). Laura was the Communications Officer at the European Geosciences Union from the summer of 2014 to the end of 2017. Laura is a geologist by training and holds a PhD in palaeomagnetism from the University of Liverpool. She tweets at @LauRob85.

1 Comment

  1. The teaching track is a very good idea. We should get rid of the idea that everyone is good in everything. I would advocate paying teaching track professors more than research professors who already get a lot of outside appreciation.

    However, just as for micro-managing research by computing some metrics, I do not think that you can improve teaching by managing on some metrics. That will only improve the metrics, but not the eduction.

    The BBC Reith lecture, A question of trust, gives a very good idea of the destruction caused by this typically British micro-manage fetish.


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