Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Do universities really not care about students?

The Daily Telegraph today carried an article by Graeme Paton, the gist of which is that top universities don’t care about students. Let’s look at the arguments cited:

  • Tuition fee income is a minority of the income for top universities 
  • Some researchers aren’t interested in teaching undergraduates
  • League tables don’t recognise teaching quality as important (because it can’t be measured)

Tuition fee income

There are two problems with Graeme Paton’s argument. The first is that university income is currently in a moment of transition. The new tuition fee regime started in England and Wales in 2012-13, with a phase out of teaching grants to universities. Tuition fees in many cases do give universities more income, per student, than the grants they replace, but in 2012-13 only the first year of this new income is recorded. So, the numbers will not reflect the full extent of the contribution of tuition fee income to universities’ overall income. Once all years of the new policy are in place, income from education will represent a larger share of universities’ income, and, as it can fluctuate annually (unlike many programme research grants which can cover 3-5 years) universities are paying attention to students and teaching. It is simply not true to say that universities don’t regard teaching as important.

The second problem is the selection of data. I will now make an uncontroversial statement: Cambridge is atypical of the UK higher education sector. It’s atypical even of ‘top’ universities. The following graph – using HESA data for 2012-13 – shows the proportion of each Russell Group university’s income which depends upon teaching:


The red bar is Cambridge. It’s an outlier. Caused, in part, by the income from the university press and the exam boards. The mean for the Russell Group is 42% of income, a proportion which is likely to rise as the tuition fee regime comes fully into play. Universities don’t ignore 42% of their income.

Some researchers aren’t interested in teaching undergraduates

Graeme Paton was right that universities are complex places. They exist to propagate and generate knowledge, which gives two related but distinct missions: to teach and to research. Every university does both of these, to differing extents. And just as every large organisation employs specialist staff, so do universities: there are academic staff whose main focus is research; and those whose main focus is teaching. But the standards that they use when selecting staff are the same: the excellent teachers are expected to be every bit as good at teaching as the excellent researchers are expected to be good at research.

It follows from this that there will be staff who don’t really engage with teaching undergraduates and, as Graeme Paton’s article points out, some research staff only engage with students who are doing PhDs. But using a Nobel Prize winner as your example is slightly naughty: we’d probably all rather that Nobel Prize winners spent more time doing the thing that got them the Nobel Prize in the first place.

League tables and teaching 

It’s certainly true that the QS world rankings don’t weight teaching highly, and also true that there isn’t really a good comparative measure of the quality of teaching across nations. That’s more a criticism of leagues tables than it is of universities, and there’s plenty of criticisms of league tables to be made. But that doesn’t imply that universities don’t care about teaching. Many ‘top’ universities identify both an international league table target and a UK one – for example, Cardiff has a world ranking target and a UK target.

And universities do try to demonstrate that they are good at teaching. In the days of QAA subject review, league tables had a measure which was the average subject review score (out of 24) or the proportion which had achieved ‘excellence’ in teaching (22 or above out of 24.) This target made it into university strategies, and enormous effort was expended in demonstrating the quality of teaching.

There is definitely a need to find a good measure of teaching quality for league tables, but the absence of a measure of teaching quality doesn’t mean the absence of effort or of concern. Nowadays there are professors in ‘top’ universities who have got the title not for their research, but for their teaching. This is a change unthinkable twenty years ago. It really is time to stop trying to make a simple argument that teaching doesn’t matter as much to universities as research: remember, these are complex organisations. Just like the man from the Telegraph says.

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