Responding to the select committee on TEF

This morning the department of Business Innovation and Skills held a Q&A session on the proposals to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework, outlined in the recent Higher Education Green Paper. In this session the select committee put questions to NUS president, Megan Dunn, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, Professor Jon Scott (Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester,) and Stuart Cannell, (Student reviewer with the Quality Assurance Agency).

(You can read more about the Teaching Excellence Framework here)

The Q&A session kicked off with a very crucial question: what problem is the TEF trying to solve?

According to Universities minister, Jo Johnson, the answer to this question is ‘patchy’ teaching quality. The solution? Allow universities to charge more if they score well according to set of metrics calculating graduate earnings data and student feedback.

Thankfully, this was challenged by the panel supplying evidence on a number of levels (not all of which will be discussed here), but most notably by offering the suggestion that the terms and conditions of teachers might be a better place to start. The responses of the select committee to this evidence offered an interesting insight into how little casualisation is widely understood to be the context for talking about university teaching.

UCU’s Sally Hunt was clear to set this out, pointing out to the panel how in the context of a total of 200,000 staff on ‘teaching only’ contracts in the sector, 100,000 of these were on fixed term or hourly contracts. That is, 50% of that workforce is employed through insecure and inadequate terms of employment, despite often being fundamental to the delivery of core teaching. This is in comparison to a total of 6% rate of casualisation in the wider labour market (according to the ONS). This is also a drop in the ocean compared to the overall rate of casualisation across teaching and research.

The response to this? It seemed that there was a dawning realisation that this might have a negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of job that universities are demanding of them.

This is an important development, since previously casualisation was not a key part of the discussion. Yet, the relationship between gender, race and disability in relation to casualisation was still not given the prominence it deserves.

The second point of revelation was in relation to the conditions for postgraduate teachers, who are working during the course of the PhD (GTAs). NUS president Megan Dunn brought this up (which is a promising development given her lack of awareness of this issue in relation to the TEF previously).

The committee seemed to ignore the question of pay, in favour of focusing on the lack of training that GTAs received.

Professor Jon Scott suggested that GTAs received training, support and pay for preparation: an assessment that many of the activists in FACE would disagree with, particularly where training is unpaid and yet mandatory. Likewise, a select committee member raised concerns about how regulating pay for postgraduate teachers might damage the ‘free exchange of knowledge’. This lack of interest in pay, in favour of notions of ‘professional development’ is indicative of the kind of liberal rhetoric used to mask the exploitation of postgraduates behind idealised notions of academic experience. Such a position is strikingly similar to the mentality surrounding the exploitation inherent in the internship model adopted in other sectors.

An encouraging sign was the general consensus that linking the TEF to a raise in tuition fees would undermine its stated aims of widening participation and improving quality.

It is important, however, to qualify this with the bigger picture. The TEF must been seen in the context of the HE green paper, which introduces a whole raft of measures designed to turn university education into a commodity. It would be very naive to suppose that the stated aims of the TEF have anything to do with the thinking behind its implementation.

Casualisation is an inherent feature of the neo-liberal economy, and as such an unavoidable fact of the marketisation of education. The ideology supporting the modern privatised university requires a dispensable and atomised work-force.

So, while it is good to see these panel members drawing attention to casualisation, we should be under no illusions that fighting against this trend requires anything less than fully opposing the marketisation of HE in the first instance.

You can read more about FACE’s analysis of casulisation in HE in the Guardian article here.

This piece was written by Jess Patterson, a organisor within FACE

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