UK Uni Minister: Focus on Teaching, Opening Access to Higher Ed


British Universities Minister Jo Johnson says that poor teaching at UK universities is harming the reputation of the institutions as they continue to focus mostly on research.

The government is to implement a Teaching Excellence framework (TEF) in an effort to turn universities from being “frankly anti-competitive” to more responsive to students. Part of the program’s aim is to let new institutions be part of the higher education sector to improve quality.

Discussing the poor quality of teaching at undergraduate courses, Johnson said:

“I hear this when I talk to worried parents, such as the physics teacher whose son dropped out at the start of year two of a humanities program at a prestigious London university, having barely set eyes on his tutor,” Johnson told university vice chancellors during his speech at the Universities UK annual conference.

He continued that the other son received an excellent education at a different university. Johnson highlighted that this highly variable university teaching quality is the result of:

“[L]amentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education”

Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, chair of the Universities UK organization, said that teaching excellence largely depends on stable and sustainable university funding. With the new proposed program, research funding is likely to be updated while the various subject research councils will merge into a single funding body. Johnson said:

“We don’t need Nobel physicists running car parks. We want the scientists focused on science.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, agreed that it’s a money issue:

“The reality is that over two-fifths of university teaching staff are on temporary or zero-hours contracts.

Academic pay has fallen by more than 15% since 2009 and promotions, particularly at a senior level, focus on research,”  she added highlighting that higher pay and staff security could help improve teaching quality.

The TEF, to be published this year, will be likely to link tuition levels to university teaching quality, the Guardian reports. Since university rankings on international league tables rely on scholarly research, universities have focused on research output and have neglected teaching, Johnson observed.

The new system will ensure “faster routes to access to student support, much faster routes to degree-awarding powers, and much faster routes to university title.” He added, “we’re not dumbing down and we’re not lowering quality. But we want faster access for high quality new entrants to the market.”

Talking to the Financial Times, Johnson said:  “We need to bust this system right open”.

For Johnson, the solution is a more equal playing field in which alternative and new higher education providers can earn university status and start offering new paths to education. Presently, university bureaucracy means this is a time-consuming process that takes years:

“It’s incredibly slow at the moment,” Mr Johnson said. “Far too slow to allow competition from new entrants at a reasonable pace and scale”.

As Johnson said, the government must enable new players to enter the higher ed sector which will result in students having more choices and these choices being of higher quality thanks to the increase in competition.

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