Those of your students who are off to an elite university next month – clutching a set of A-level results of which they (and you) should be rightly proud – could be in for something of a shock once they’ve recovered from freshers’ week.
Emerging from 14 years in the bosom what is, in large part, an excellent schools system, they may be bemused: it’s likely their new academic home won’t be terribly interested in their educational experience.
Universities may dish out qualifications, organise thousands of lectures and, indeed, now have a reporting line into the Department of Education, but for many years, teaching has played second fiddle to the purity of academic research.
There have recently been several efforts to change this, not least of all because of pressures from students, who, perhaps not unreasonably, expect a decent amount of bang for their 27,000 bucks.
Most recently, this has included the publication of the Teaching Excellence Framework, which ranked all England’s universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze according to the quality of teaching. Of the 134 to have gone through the process, 83 per cent picked up Silver or Gold and 17 per cent were labelled Bronze, including some of our supposed world-leaders – the highly selective London School of Economics and the University of Liverpool, to name but two.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that there are no special measures for universities; Bronze is “satisfactory” – or “requires improvement” as we like to call it in the schools sector these days. Nobody say Old Boys Club.
As a second aside, it’s also worth pointing out that of the 21,000 schools inspected by Ofsted, nearly 19,000 are currently judged “good” or “outstanding” for teaching and learning.
Frankly, I’m not so sure universities should be all about teaching anyway. Market-led reforms have understandably driven these demands, but surely being a university student should, mostly, be about a voyage of self-discovery (intellectually, and other wise). There is, after all, nothing so character-forming as sleeping through a term of lectures on the political history of modern Japan.
But that’s beside the point. What the TEF data shows, combined with empirical evidence (a thoroughly scientific…ish straw poll in the Tes newsroom), is that many English universities – including some that are supposedly world-class – are, at best, only passingly interested in teaching and learning.
All of which allows me to neatly segue on to the perennial idea that universities are in a good position to tell teachers how to run schools.
This should be a policy joke – and yet it has had more reinventions than Madonna: most recently, it featured alongside the proposals for more grammar schools in the government’s pre-election education Green Paper. And while the 11-plus plans died a death in the aftermath of the general election, rumours emanating from Downing Street suggest that the idea of HE institutions being forced to sponsor academies is still on the table.
This, despite the fact that – TEF or no TEF – top universities’ changing their indifferent attitude towards teaching is about as likely as Sir Michael Wilshaw suddenly deciding that learning styles are a gift to differentiation.
To ram home the point, let’s turn this bonkers political idea on its head. Let’s imagine if the University of Dreaming Spires was told by the education secretary that schoolteachers were best placed to run its £100m new Institute for the Study of Navel-Gazing. The uproar would be deafening – and rightly so.
So how about this? How about schools are left to do what they do best – teaching – and universities are left to do what they do best – research. And if a few dons decide to brush up on their pedagogy, that would probably be no bad thing – especially if they want to keep charging nine grand a year.