Beyond Teaching Excellence

(On not filling and measuring the pail, but lighting the fire)

[This is the transcript of a ‘provocation’ I presented at the joint conference of the three subject associations for dance (DanceHE), drama (SCUDD) and music (NAMHE) as part of a debate about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF),  University of Huddersfield, 7th April 2017]

We didn’t vote for it. It’s far more complicated than those who envisaged it thought it might be. There are serious doubts about whether it’s going to achieve what it set out to do. But it’s here, it’s happening, and we’re told we’ve got to make the best of it.

And that’s just the TEF.

So what are the “known knowns”, which in some cases turn out to be “unknowns” anyway.

Take ‘excellence’ for example. In the original government Green Paper, there’s a very helpful section headed:

What do we mean by excellence?

(At this point you have to imagine a scene from Yes Minister, in which Sir Humphrey, in his inimitable way, explains ‘excellence’ to a rather bewildered Jim Hacker)

Humphrey: Well, Minister…..

“There is no one broadly accepted definition of “teaching excellence”. In practice it has many interpretations and there are likely to be different ways of measuring it. The Government does not intend to stifle innovation in the sector or restrict institutions’ freedom to choose what is in the best interests of their students. But we do think there is a need to provide greater clarity about what we are looking for and how we intend to measure it in relation to the TEF. Our thinking has been informed by the following principles:

  • excellence must incorporate and reflect the diversity of the sector, disciplines and missions – not all students will achieve their best within the same model of teaching;
  • excellence is the sum of many factors – focussing on metrics gives an overview, but not the whole picture;
  • perceptions of excellence vary between students, institutions and employers;
  • excellence is not something achieved easily or without focus, time, challenge and change.”

Hacker: Really? Is that it?
Humphrey: Yes, Minister.

So that’s much clearer isn’t it? The Government clearly believes that excellent teaching can occur in many different forms, in a wide variety of institutions, and it is not the intention of the TEF to constrain or prescribe the form that excellence must take. What we should expect though, is that excellent teaching, whatever its form, delivers excellent outcomes.

Well, for a start, the TEF has criteria, and metrics, so the notion and form of excellence in regard to the TEF is already proscribed or constrained. In fact, what will – and no doubt is happening – is that institutions are aligning their priorities precisely to those criteria – which, as almost everyone admits – are in any case based on the proxy ‘outcomes’ of NSS scores, retention and most importantly graduate salaries which are high enough to pay back all the money the government has lost in its ill-advised restructuring of HE finance.

What about some “known unknowns”?

What we do know is that the TEF puts the so-called ‘elite’ institutions, whose excellence is hitherto self-evident and uncontested, under some pressure. It’s been noticeable that while there has been a great deal of loud and insistent criticism of the NSS metrics from that quarter, there has been far less directed at the stats on employment and earnings. Surely that has nothing to do with the fact that, in regard to employment and earnings, Russell Group graduates do rather well…..but the evidence shows that has more to do with the social, educational and cultural capital of Russell Group students than the quality of the teaching

So, while we know that it’s hard to fall once you’ve been at the top for a long time, the “unknown” is how the politics of this will play out in practice when our much vaunted and excellent ‘elite’ institutions don’t appear at the top of whatever league table appears for Teaching Excellence. Paul Blackmore, at Kings, argues that long-held prestige – primarily based on research outcomes – will probably still trump the TEF outcomes in the short-term.

Some years ago, way before TEF even glimmered on the horizon, I was asked to contribute to a special ‘On Excellence’ issue of the HEA’s ‘Exchange’ magazine. I was writing at a time when I’d just been at a large academic conference where there had been a major debate about excellence in higher education.

Even back then there was a clear majority who felt that the term has lost credibility and value. When all institutions are either ‘excellent’ or, at the very least, ‘striving for excellence’ then we are witnessing a lot of sound (but hopefully not fury) signifying nothing. Excellence, in the memorable term coined by Bill Readings’ has become ‘de-referentialised’.

Readings’ extraordinarily prescient book – The University in Ruins – appeared 21 years ago. He described the university, forced to abandon its historical raison d’etre as a bastion of knowledge and culture, now enmeshed in corporatist, consumerist ideology, and obsessed by the ubiquitous, but empty, quest for excellence. Everywhere one looks, one sees mission statements and vision statements aspiring to excellence. There are no modifiers to the word, and thus the excellence can seem empty. It is unspecific. Excellence in teaching, excellence in research, and not forgetting excellence in parking (I kid you not). Everybody’s striving for excellence, because who wants to strive for just being ‘pretty good’.

The “excellence in parking” demonstrate the vacuity of the term. It was actually awarded to a university’s Parking Services for their success in restricting vehicle access to the university, and significantly reducing the number of parking spaces. Excellence could just as well have meant making people’s lives easier by increasing the number of parking spaces available. The issue here is not the merits of either option but the fact that excellence can function equally well as an evaluative criterion on either side of the issue of what constitutes “excellence in parking”, because excellence has no content to call its own.

So beyond the dodgy but unavoidable metrics, and the slipperiness of the notion of excellence, how do we demonstrate our ‘excellence’?

Well, there is of course the Provider Submission to supply a richer, deeper more meaningful narrative. Well having seen a few, there’s a clear M.O. (as the police say at a crime scene):

  • Use the word excellence or excellent a lot, particular if you can quote a reputable source e.g. QAA or External Examiner or provide some evidence where you can.
  • Write things like….
  • “We recognise and reward excellent teaching.”
  • “Team teaching and team meetings all support teaching excellence”
  • “Our eternal examiner comments that students’ standards of analysis are at times excellent”
  • “Our accrediting body commented on our ‘Excellent interaction with industry bodies and exemplary experiential learning practices’”

So we do what we’ve always done which is to play the game, and play it as well, or as excellently, as we can.

But…thinking back to that article on excellence I wrote for the HEA: my starting point for the article was the thought that we tend to avoid the ‘E’ word when it comes to talking about our art and performance practices. I know it’s a cliché, but when we greet the performers after a great show, we rarely, if ever, say “That was excellent”.

We say “That was wonderful” (the ‘darling’ is an optional extra), and I do think ‘wonderful’ is truly a much better word than ‘excellent’. Rather than ‘excellent’s’ rather hard-edged, triumphalist implication of being better than others, ‘wonderful’, i.e. full of wonder, has a sense of the remarkable, the extraordinary, the inspirational, the truly successful that is the mark of the highest quality work.

There is that famous quote ‘education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire‘ (which is often misattributed to W.B.Yeats). That ‘lighting of the fire’ is what  I know we truly strive for,  and that we need to look beyond our obsession with trying to define, achieve, assess and reward excellence. What the TEF forces us to do is to focus on the filling of the pail, and then tick off when it is full, when we should be focusing on the fire.

© Paul Kleiman 2017

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy The Emperor’s Folderol or Tales of the TEF: