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9:33am on Friday, 23rd June, 2017:

We Are Gold


In common with a quarter of other UK universities, yesterday Essex University was given a gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework.

I'm not going to say anything cynical about this, as I think we actually are rather good at teaching and did deserve the award. However, I was surprised to see this poster appear the same day that the results were released:

There was also a photo-op with maybe 100 people bunking off work to have a group picture taken with large polystyrene ESSEX letters spray-painted gold. This was the scene when I arrived:

The poster and the letters aren't the kind of thing that can be knocked up in just an hour or two, so the results must have been released a few days ago but embargoed until yesterday. Either that, or someone was panicking in case we only got a silver and the cost of the poster and letters was coming out of their salary.

The TEF is a good idea, but it reminds me of the arts-and-sciences division. There's a long-held view among some quarters of the art establishment that being good at both art and science is mutually incompatible, therefore if you're good at art you must be bad at science and vice versa. This view is not held in the sciences. People occasionally boast "oh, I'm useless at maths" as a way of implying that they're wonderfully creative (actors are particularly prone to this), but you don't see many scientists suggesting that being illiterate is a prerequisite for being a particle physicist.

With the TEF, I can see how research-intensive universities could take the position that either you can be good at teaching or good at research but not both. Students don't give high ratings to difficult subjects, therefore high TEF ratings must be due to a lack of intellectual content, therefore any university that has a high TEF rating must be a shoddy institution offering shoddy degrees to shoddy students (except Oxbridge, because they have such a high staff/student ratio that they can actually do the teaching). Having a low TEF score is therefore a sign of quality, like being useless at science is a sign of creativity among certain groups of artists.

Academics have three aspects to their work: research, teaching and administration ("each of which takes up half their time"). Essex University has a gold TEF, and if the Research Excellence Framework was summarised as Olympic-style medals would have a gold REF, too. What this means is that if there were an Administration Excellence Framework, we'd be right there at the bottom in the striving-for-bronze zone.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).