Higher Education

Approaching 50% of young people now begin a university course, and often pay (or borrow) approaching £20,000 a year to do so, including tuition fees, accommodation, and living and other expenses.  But:

  • Undergraduates are often surprised by their limited amount of 'contact time' with their supposed teachers.
    • (One student told me that her Russell Group university scheduled only one lecture, and a week of exams, in the third term (semester) of her first year there - presumably because the academics wanted to focus on research.)
  • Students are also often surprised by large size of tutorial groups and therefore by the lack of personal attention from their tutors.
    • At least one university now no longer relies on tutors to monitor students' engagement with courses, but instead monitors library use, lecture attendance etc. and then 'nudges' any student whose interest seems to be fading.  Not very caring, when you think about it - but dead cheap!
  • The tutors themselves may be relatively post-grads, insufficiently experienced to provide pastoral care or other advice to their students.
  • The proportion of (supposed) first class degrees increased from16% to 27% over the six years to 2017.
  • Even the government, in a 2020 report, accepted that the annual National Student Survey had since 2005 'exerted downward pressure on standards [because] good scores are most easily achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students'.   Students who choose courses having been guided by the NSS tend 'to choose courses that are easy and entertaining, rather than robust and rigorous'.

There is therefore increasing interest in the quality of tuition and other aspects of university life, and this has led to greater regulatory intervention. But it's a tricky area to regulate, given the importance of academic freedom, and the reluctance of students and academics to criticise their institution given the importance to their CV of their having been seen to attend and/or work at a prestigious body. It was therefore good to see the National Audit Office taking an interest in this area in a report published in late 2017. The NAO noted that

"Only 32% of higher education students consider their course offers value for money, and competition between providers to drive improvements on price and quality has yet to prove effective ... “We are deliberately thinking of higher education as a market, and as a market, it has a number of points of failure. Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice, and the institutions concerned are under very little competitive pressure to provide best value. If this was a regulated financial market we would be raising the question of mis-selling."

The Office for Students

The OfS became operational in April 2018, bringing together many of the functions of the Higher Education Funding Council, the Office for Fair Access (see below), the Department for Education and the Privy Council together into a single organisation, 'putting students at the heart of the market'. It will be responsible for the ...

Teaching Excellence Framework

There is commendable interest in improving the quality of undergraduate teaching given the problems summarised in the introductory paragraph to this web page. So universities are now assessed via the TEF on the quality of their teaching.

Professor David Weitzman provided some interesting background to this exercise, writing in 2017:

" ...we’ve been here before. Despite a range of processes to monitor educational quality, we have failed to crack the problem. We have monitored, reported and walked away, hoping that any quality improvement would persist. In the 1990s a system was introduced for evaluating the quality of teaching and learning in every subject at every university. It was probing, thorough and potentially valuable, but academics disliked it. Yielding to pressure, the monitoring body abandoned classroom observation and, later, all monitoring.

Quality is maintained only by maintaining monitoring. Improvements in quality merit lighter-touch monitoring for sustainability, and the interaction between teaching staff and their academic monitors can provide a healthy, two-way exchange of experience and good practice."

Some of the 2017 TEF assessments were controversial, apart possibly from the most surprising, the Bronze (lowest level) of award given to the London School of Economics:

  • “The LSE falls down on pretty much every important TEF measure. They are both objectively poor and well below their benchmark on measures like academic support, assessment and feedback,”
  • “While lower awards given to other prestigious universities are perhaps more questionable, the LSE really is a slam-dunk case of bronze, and this appears to back up the intention of the government’s new rating process.”
  • "For (LSE) students it came as no surprise. While most feel privileged to be studying at such an illustrious institution, they are frustrated at the inaccessibility of many academics, scant feedback, constant sabbaticals and classes routinely covered by PhD students."
  • “The LSE is a research business with a degree factory on the side. Undergraduates are the poor relations here,” one politics student said.
  • "Undergraduates have no right to feedback after exams and have to use a booking service for appointments with tutors. “I struggle to get a single line of feedback sometimes, and then when I get it I need to ask a follow-up question and it all starts again,” the (LSE) politics student said."
  • "When (LSE) PhD students cover the classes for the regular academics, it can come as a relief. “I spent many lectures listening to famous academics recount anecdotes from their personal lives, entertaining but totally irrelevant to the topic. On some occasions I can’t understand anything because their English is so poor,” a history undergraduate said.

But - commenting more generally on the TEF - some commentators recommended caution:

Dylan Wiliam:- "We do need to be concerned about the quality of teaching in our colleges and universities, but the results of the second round of the Teaching Excellence Framework add little to our understanding of the quality of teaching in our higher education institutions (“Elite universities exposed as second-rate”, June 22). Student satisfaction surveys are notoriously inaccurate as indications of the quality of teaching they have received — many studies show students prefer styles of teaching that significantly reduce how much they actually learn — and the TEF provides no data about whether students are in fact learning anything. Moreover, good postgraduate employment statistics do not take into account whether students are actually using anything they have learnt during their studies, or whether they have the flexibility to adapt to the changing world of work. Perhaps most worryingly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is actively inviting simplistic and meaningless comparisons by presenting complex, multi-dimensional data in terms of gold, silver and bronze awards. The TEF may raise the issue of teaching quality in universities, but as it stands will do little to improve it."

I suspect that this slide summarises the problem very well:-


The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) seeks to ensure 'that everyone with the potential and ambition to succeed in higher education [has] equal opportunity to do so, whatever their income or background'. They accordingly aim to make sure that higher education establishments have measures in place to attract and support disadvantaged students.


Until the arrival of the TEF (see above), universities' reputations hung mainly on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise. They seem to have provided a reasonable rough-and-ready assessment of the strength of a university's research but had two key disadvantages. The first was that they encouraged volume over quality, and so triggered a torrent of mediocre academic papers. The second was that they led to students choosing well-regarded universities (well regarded, that is, for their research) oblivious of the fact that teaching quality might be very poor - which led in due course to the creation of the TEF.


There is not much that an individual student can do if they are concerned about the quality of their education. All universities etc. have complaints processes, but few students will wish to make a fuss which could rebound on them if their professors and tutors feel unfairly criticised. And an isolated complaining student can easily be characterised as a poor learner.

There is an external complaints body - the Office of the Independent Adjudicator - and they seem to do a good job assessing around 1600 appeals each year against specific university decisions. But the OIA can only look at complaints which have been considered first by universities, and it is anyway not empowered or resourced to take a wider interest in the quality of higher education.



Martin Stanley

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