Minister blasts patchy quality of university teaching

Teaching has been neglected in the pursuit of brand reputation via international rankings in parts of the United Kingdom’s higher education system, and the patchiness of teaching quality is damaging the reputation of UK universities, the minister for universities and science told university leaders last Wednesday.

Jo Johnson said: “Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system.”

In a scathing attack, he said that there are institutions that have struck a ‘disengagement contract’ of the sort described by academics David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper in which teachers agree not to set and mark many essays and assignments in order not to distract themselves from their research nor their students from partying.

Addressing the annual members’ conference of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, at Surrey University, he cited the concerns of parents, including a physics teacher whose son dropped out at the start of year two of a humanities programme at a prestigious London university, having barely set eyes on his tutor.

He said while some institutions worked students off their feet, the patchiness in student experience within and between institutions cannot continue.

“There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.”

Johnson used the occasion to set out his broader vision for higher education, foreshadowing a green paper to be published this autumn.

He said the aim was to produce well-equipped students ready to contribute to society and to businesses keen to employ increasing numbers of skilled graduates, but universities had to do more to demonstrate that they add real and lasting value for all students.

Given the rise in tuition fee costs to the student, more had to be done to ensure that they could make informed choices – about where to study – and that the time and money they invest in higher education is well spent.

“The key to that is, in my view, great teaching,” he said. “Combined with rigorous assessment, useful feedback and preparation for the world of work.”

As a result government plans to introduce new incentives for universities to focus on teaching via the Teaching Excellence Framework, promised in the election manifesto, which would be a critical element in the consultation this autumn.

He said the new framework would aim to give more information about the actual teaching that students will receive, drive up student engagement with the learning process and reward universities that do most to stretch students’ minds.

“It will help, I hope, to create a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with our great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as our great researchers,” he said.

Johnson said there will be financial incentives behind the Teaching Excellence Framework or TEF, with those offering high quality teaching able to increase fees with inflation, but he also wanted it to bring about a “fundamental shift in how we think about and value teaching in our universities”.

Students satisfied

Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, the new president of Universities UK, pointed out that this year’s National Student Survey shows that overall 86% of students are satisfied with the quality of their course – the same as last year.

She said these figures are particularly significant given that they are the first cohort of students in England who started courses in 2012 under the new £9,000 (US$13,800) tuition fee regime.

But another indicator of the value of a university degree is the official figures showing 94% of graduates are in work or study three and a half years after graduation, and that more than four out of five of those are employed in professional, graduate jobs, she said.

“Our graduates earn almost £10,000 a year more than people without degrees and are more likely to be in work than at any time since 2007 – with employers predicting an 11% rise in graduate vacancies this year,” she said.

However, she said, universities are not complacent, recognise the need to continue to evolve and “absolutely recognise the importance of excellence in teaching”. However, teaching excellence could only be achieved with “stable and sustainable funding”.

She also stressed the contribution that universities were making to the economy – generating more than £73 billion (US$112 billion) of output in 2014 – and underlined the importance of the UK’s research base, which is “consistently found to be the most productive and efficient in the world”.

Despite representing only 3.2% of global research and development spending, the UK accounts for 11.6% of citations and 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles.

However, she warned that with investment in research significantly lower as a proportion of gross domestic product, or GDP, than in many other countries – 0.5% of GDP is spent on publicly funded science and research compared to the OECD average of 0.7% – there is a real question about how long the UK will continue to be acknowledged as a “world-leading research power”.

“We must act now or the UK’s position will be further challenged,” she said.


I am glad someone finally said this. Educators need to be given the respect that researchers are given and universities should be striving to have dedicated teaching staff rather than making top researchers teach who do not want to. Just because you have a swathe of Nature, Cell or Science papers does not automatically make you a good educator.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page