In the green paper ‘The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education’, published in February 2016, government advisors asked universities to engage in ‘speedy establishment of potentially viable metrics relating to learning gain’.In its official response to the paper, Oxford University expressed concern about the division that TEF may place between teaching and research.In a statement to Cherwell, OUSU commented, “We don’t believe that the TEF will have a positive impact on Oxford University, or on UK Higher Education as a whole. In its currently proposed form, the TEF is a broad-brush exercise that doesn’t account for differences in teaching across the sector, and given that undergraduate study at Oxford is based on the tutorial system and differs considerably from other institutions, we do not think that the TEF will account for this adequately.“According to modelling conducted by the Times Higher Education based on the proposed metrics, Oxford ranked 4th on raw data, and 28th once benchmarking had taken place. This would put us in the Outstanding category, which means the University will be able to raise fees by the level of inflation. This has disastrous implications for access. Debt aversion is a known deterrent to prospective students; if the University is able to raise fees year on year, an Oxford education will become less and less accessible to many students from less advantaged backgrounds, making our community less diverse and impeding our ability to attract the best students regardless of background.“The metrics that are currently being proposed are the results of the NSS and DLHE surveys. We believe that neither student satisfaction rankings nor employment and salary data of leavers six months after graduation are reliable or robust indicators of the quality of teaching in an institution. DLHE data in particular has been shown to reflect the background and demographics of the student population more than the quality of the education they received. Attempting to shoehorn teaching excellence into a narrow definition based on these criteria is not only reductive, it is also damaging to UK Higher Education as a whole.“As general principles, we welcome increased transparency and accountability of academic provision within HE – it is important to make sure that universities are providing excellent quality teaching to their students. However, there are ulterior motives at play in the reforms heralded by the government’s White Paper and HE Bill. There is an underlying assumption to the TEF, demonstrated by the link to fee increases, that a better education should cost more. This will result in a differentiated fee system across HE, creating a hierarchy within the sector that will lead prospective students to choose where to study based on cost, rather than quality.“We are fully committed to an Oxford that is as accessible and inclusive as possible. We oppose the TEF because we believe that it will have a catastrophic effect on access. Raising fees in the way proposed through TEF puts the burden on the student, rather than the government, to cover the costs of a university education. Oxford is already an expensive place to live and study; if fees consistently increase at the rate of inflation, an Oxford degree will become exponentially more unaffordable for many prospective students.” Representatives from student unions across the UK, including the Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU), have written an open letter to the vice-chancellors of British universities asking them to oppose the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. The letter, published in the Guardian on Wednesday, criticises the ‘questionable metrics’ that TEF will be based on and the divisions that it will cause between higher education providers.TEF was first proposed in a government green paper in November 2015. Although a final proposal has not been released, it has already been described as a radical shake-up of the British higher education system. It aims to make comparison between higher education providers easier for prospective students, but has also been linked to an increase in the number of institutions able to award degrees and the increase of tuition fees at top universities.The letter criticising TEF was signed by OUSU president Jack Hampton as well as five of the organisation’s vice-presidents. They appeared on the list of signatories along with representatives from 49 other university student unions, including the Cambridge University Students’ Union, the University College London Students’ Union and the University of Bristol Students’ Union. The controversial president of the NUS, Malia Bouattia, signed the letter with twelve NUS vice-presidents and senior officers.TEF will group higher education providers into three bands based on their performance in three ‘metrics’. These metrics are student satisfaction, retention (the number of students who complete their courses at the institution within the prescribed timeframe) and graduate employment. All of these metrics have come under a degree of criticism from universities and student groups as likely to be effected by factors other than teaching quality. It has also been suggested that measuring retention rates may lead to universities making their courses easier whilst graduate employment rates may discourage universities from offering niche or highly academic degrees.In response to these criticisms, government advisors have proposed measuring these metrics qualitatively, via a team of experts, rather than quantitatively. Alternatively replacing the metrics with a measure of ‘value added’ or ‘learning gain’ has been discussed. If adopted, this may involve a test taken by students at the beginning of their course and repeated at the end, but there are currently no published details about how this would be implemented.
When Tessa Lowinske Desmond’s husband was offered a tenure-track position at Harvard in 2010, the opportunity proved too enticing for the academic couple to resist. But the Desmonds’ dream job was also every new parent’s nightmare: a distant relocation to a city where they knew virtually no one.“We moved from Wisconsin, with newborn in arms, excited to be at Harvard but nervous to not have any resources,” Desmond said, referring to child-care help for her son, Sterling, now almost 3. Last year, the Desmonds turned to a resource that has been gaining ground among Harvard parents: the WATCH Portal, an online child-care hub that helps connect faculty, staff, and graduate student parents with student sitters.“It was just a huge blessing for us,” said Desmond, the program administrator for ethnic studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).Heartened by early success stories like Desmond’s, the Office of Work/Life and the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity (FD&D), which jointly developed the WATCH Portal last year, are expanding the site’s features.The WATCH Portal (Web Access to Care at Harvard Portal) grew last month to allow postings for a variety of odd jobs. Anyone with a Harvard PIN can now post and view listings seeking Harvard students (or the teenage children of Harvard employees) to help with yard work, dog walking, house sitting, and other chores.“It’s not just parents who are juggling multiple tasks, and Harvard gets that,” said Nancy Costikyan, director of the Office of Work/Life. “This expansion is one more way that Harvard can support the very busy lives of all our faculty and staff.”The update was in part spurred by direct requests from faculty, said Judith Singer, senior vice provost for FD&D and Harvard’s James Bryant Conant Professor of Education. Already, posts have sprung up on the site seeking everything from a housekeeper to a personal chef willing to cook vegetarian meals.“Some people with older children said they no longer needed child care, but would welcome tutoring for their teenagers,” Singer said. “Others without children said they’d love to get a student to help with odd jobs, from dog sitting to stacking wood.”In its first year, the WATCH Portal garnered 1,566 users; two-thirds were parents, the rest were job-seeking students. And visitors were making real connections: Nearly 700 emails have been sent between baby sitters and parents using the site.When her former baby sitter became unavailable, Mylène Priam, an associate professor of Romance languages and literatures in FAS, said she immediately thought of the WATCH Portal.Priam had used Craigslist to look for a nanny before the portal launched; she liked that WATCH was vetted and easy to use. That access is free, compared with other online services she’d seen that charge a fee for entry to a database of vetted sitters, was another draw.“I’m grateful it was there when I was in a conundrum,” said Priam, who routinely uses a baby sitter for her 6-year-old daughter on nights and weekends. “It was great to know there was something like that already out there, that I didn’t have to wrack my brain.”Then there are Harvard parents like Desmond and her husband, Matthew, an assistant professor of sociology and a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, whose jobs entail after-hours commitments that are essential to their developing careers. He had faculty dinners; she had evening events with students and visiting scholars to manage.Having easy access to baby sitters who lived on campus was crucial, Desmond said. Harvard students often meet her at her office, pick up her son, Sterling, and spend a few hours at the Cambridge Public Library or playing in the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) lounge; they’ve even taken Sterling to their Houses.“He was meeting other students and going to the dining hall, which he thought was great,” Desmond said. “I’m going to tell him he was running the halls of Harvard when he was 2 years old.”Desmond said she may use the site for dog sitting or house sitting, now that those options are available.“Having access to the WATCH Portal made our work and our life so much easier,” she said. “It made everything more seamless, and it made it possible for me to be fully present at my job.”