Year after year in Sociology at Westminster we receive consistently high levels of student satisfaction (90-100%) in the National Student Survey. Individual Sociology staff have won awards for their quality teaching, and most recently were awarded a team Excellence Award in recognition of our innovative teaching programme. We have specialist teaching qualifications which mean our work is informed by the latest thinking in Higher Education. External examiners reported only last week how impressed and inspired they are by what we do.
While it does not come as a surprise, we are disappointed to find that our university has been ranked ‘Bronze’ – the lowest category – in the national Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), published this morning. Although the stated aim of the TEF is ‘to recognise and reward excellence in teaching and learning’ the outcome for Sociology at Westminster has been the direct opposite: the TEF result says, quite plainly, that we’re crap at our jobs.
This is why I’m writing to you, our undergraduate students. You know as well as I do that the TEF result is just not true. You know that in Sociology you’ve got a really dedicated teaching team. You know how much work we put in to developing super interesting modules (spending many more hours on this than the university asks us to). You know how much one-to-one support we provide to develop your knowledge and skills. You know how intellectually transformative our critical, socially engaged teaching can be.
We’re confident that you know how good our teaching is, but we don’t want the TEF’s insinuation to shake that. We want our graduating third year students to know (as our examiners tell us) that your hard work is comparable to that produced at the UK’s most elite institutions. Because the TEF is telling you, quite plainly, that you’ve had a third-rate experience, it’s important to explain why the TEF is a fundamentally flawed mechanism.
While there is variance in student satisfaction across our University, the issue with the TEF is not that Sociology is being dragged down by poor results in other subject areas. That would be unfair on our colleagues who work very hard in increasingly difficult circumstances to provide excellent teaching.
The most obvious problem with the TEF is that it doesn’t engage with teaching at all. Nobody has observed a single lecture, seminar, or workshop. In the very simplest terms, the TEF is a lie. Instead of this, the TEF uses proxy data, and alongside student satisfaction it includes metrics like drop-out rates and graduate employment data.
It is no wonder, then, that the more elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have generally obtained a ‘gold’ rating in the REF. These universities continue to be populated by disproportionate numbers of privately-educated students whose privilege goes on to secure them the UK’s top jobs. This isn’t because these students have experienced excellent teaching: it is because elite institutions continue to play a significant role on reproducing preexisting social privileges. The advantages conferred by social class are invariably consolidated by white privilege.
The TEF also needs to be understood as part of a wider and ongoing process of the marketization of the university sector. The TEF is according the author of a recent report, ‘not so much about teaching excellence as raising fees’. The TEF promises to give elite institutions the right to raise fees (and so further reinforcing class distinction); it will force lower-ranking institutions like Westminster to reduce fees, with a predictable knock-on effect on future student expenditure and the resourcing of teaching. In short: the TEF is going to make things a lot harder for non-elite universities like Westminster.
In the General Election students and young people put the injustice of tuition fees firmly back on the political agenda. There’s increasing recognition that neither university staff nor students are benefiting from the market in UK Higher Education. In Sociology at Westminster we will do our best – in collaboration with our amazing, talented students – to struggle against its injustices, and that includes the faulty verdict of the TEF.
Ben Pitcher is Co-Leader of the Sociology BA Honours at Westminster. @Pitcher_Ben