Book Review: Excellence in Higher Education

In this post, Bethany Sumner, one of CSPACE’s doctoral students, reviews an important new book on the Teaching Excellence Framework, edited by Amanda French and Matt O’Leary.

Details: French, A. and O’Leary, M. (Eds.) (2017) Excellence in Higher Education, Challenges, Changes and the Teaching Excellence Framework. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.

TEF book coverThe introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has ignited debate and controversy about the potential effects on the English higher education (HE) sector, particularly given the framework’s reliance on a core set of metrics that have tenuous (at best) links to teaching quality. Excellence in Higher Education, Challenges, Changes and the Teaching Excellence Framework (French and O’Leary, 2017), the first title in the ‘Great Debates in Higher Education’ series, captures many of those debates. It draws upon the experience of current HE professionals and the wider agenda of teaching excellence to offer some much-needed insight into the repercussions of TEF for those directly involved in teaching and learning. The book offers a useful breakdown of key issues including the aims of the TEF, what it involves, and
how it relates to the wider discourses of HE, such as
widening participation and employability.

It was pleasing to see that the authors welcome the renewed focus on teaching in HE. However, as they highlight, multiple difficulties arise when an endeavour is made to reduce a complex, shifting, context-dependent and multifaceted construct such as ‘excellence’ to a set of metrics (Gourlay and Stevenson, 2017). The TEF’s continued reluctance to engage in any debate concerning the complexity of teaching excellence does little to negate this. This book engages in a nuanced and comprehensive discussion of what ‘teaching excellence’ might actually mean, drawing on a range of relevant literature and practical experience to help develop the readers’ thinking, not only in terms of the TEF but also in relation to pedagogy, professional learning, and developing authentic and effective teaching practice. It offers an important reminder of the importance of teaching and learning that can sometimes be lost in criticism of the metric-driven nature of the TEF.

One of the challenges in this text is that the very nature of the subject means that some of the discussions are quickly outdated. For example the book is critical of the TEF’s proposed link to fees, noting the perceived inevitability that TEF performance would eventually be used to justify a differential fee structure in the sector. However, as things currently stand, the TEF no longer has a bearing on the amount that higher education providers can charge (Leach, 2017). Despite this context, the rapidly changing political climate of HE is in no way detriment to the book’s critical commentary on both the TEF and wider discourses of teaching excellence in general and the refreshing ideas offered such as putting forward the idea of emergent pedagogies to help grow great teaching in HE.

The text offers a thought-provoking and detailed commentary on an area that has been subject to much debate and contention and proposes some refreshing and relevant discussions in terms of pedagogical practice. In a context where higher education providers are caught up in a ‘status economy’ with status being the global higher education market currency (Warren, 2017) and where ‘metrics are everything’ the book provides a valuable, critical voice of reason. I recommend this book to anyone working in HE or who has an active interest in the sector. It is well written, clear and informative, and helps to shed some timely light on the contentions surrounding the TEF and the notion of teaching excellence in general. This is an important book, not least because as French and O’Leary point out ‘it’s time that teaching and learning became a bigger priority in higher education’ and it appears that the TEF is here to stay.

 

Gourlay, L. and Stevenson, J. (2017) Teaching excellence in higher education: critical perspectives. Teaching in Higher Education, 22(4), pp.391-395.

Leach, M. (2017) Government defeated in the Lords over TEF and fees. Available at: http://wonkhe.com/blogs/government-defeated-in-the-lords-over-tef-and-fees/ [Accessed 20th October 2017].

Warren, S. (2017) Struggling for visibility in higher education: caught between neoliberalism ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ – an autoethnographic account. Journal of Education Policy, 32(2), pp.127-140.

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