Will chasing the market really result in an increase in quality? (UK)

V-cs say that their institutions need to be ‘fast on their feet’, but simply expanding popular courses will not work, says Graham Gibbs.

The government argues that markets “drive up quality”. I have recently read articles and attended seminars concerned with whether higher education has really become a market or a quasi-market. These are usually fairly academic debates revolving around economists’ definitions and the listing of fixed, rigged or constrained elements that make the sector somewhat unlike any market most of us would recognise. But never mind the theory, what about the practical consequences? Institutions and their managers are starting to behave as if they were in a market, regardless of what economists think: this behaviour is affecting quality, and these effects will not always be what one might hope for.

Increasingly I hear vice-chancellors saying that their institutions need to be “fast on their feet” and “responsive to the market”. That can’t be bad, can it? Let’s consider what is going on where universities are rapidly axeing courses that are not especially popular, or combining courses in a way that might make them more popular. Given fixed student numbers overall, this can only mean larger numbers on the courses that are left, euphemised as “economies of scale”. Getting rid of permanent teachers is an expensive, protracted business, so you can forget the idea of increased resources being made available to the surviving courses any time soon.

Rapidly increasing student intake on a programme due to unexpected demand (or because other programmes have been closed) is unlikely to be associated with an instant increase in available teaching spaces, and is instead usually associated with overcrowded lectures and less small-group teaching. Larger cohorts reduce retention, performance and learning gains. Without increasing the number of teachers on the remaining courses, class sizes will also go up and “close contact” will come down – both of which reduce engagement and learning gains, research indicates. So if you do not want an immediate drop in quality, you have to increase the number of teachers – but without the short-term funds to do so. And who will institutions employ? It takes time to recruit permanent teachers, and permanent posts are unlikely to be established while student demand is volatile (and if you think it is not volatile, ask Aston University: its applications have dropped 20 per cent this year). It is quicker, cheaper and safer to hire temporary, inexperienced, part-time teachers – the “adjunct faculty” who today are responsible for more than half of all teaching in the US higher education market. They receive poorer ratings from students, reduce student performance and increase dropout rates. They often mark to different and varied standards, and do not join in social processes that create coherence and consistency within universities. Being fast on your feet starts to look less attractive.

While researching the effects of class size on student performance and approaches to learning years ago, my colleagues and I uncovered an interesting phenomenon that had been buried in the assessment data we had collated for 20,000 courses over a 10-year period. Some degree programmes had a curious student-performance cycle. Once we looked at individual subjects and talked to those involved, we discovered that when degree programmes were periodically reviewed and changed, performance often went down and took three to four years to recover. What programmes need is stability, a platform from which to innovate and improve over time. Sudden changes from one year to the next tend to produce resource-led or regulation-led changes in patterns of teaching and assessment that cut across local wisdom and experience, and make things worse rather than better. Organisational change has a terrible reputation in educational literature in terms of delivering improvements.

When I was doing the “large classes” research, I used to receive letters, sometimes anonymous, from teachers about quite appalling practices that had been introduced against their wishes to cope with extra numbers while maintaining the appearance of quality. I have recently started receiving emails from teachers who are reporting cynical market-driven skulduggery at the expense of any sensible approach to teaching: for example, increasing apparent class-contact hours involving lectures at the expense of “close contact” in a way that might make Key Information Sets look good but which is likely to reduce engagement and performance. If you have the wrong performance indicators (or “product information for customers”), you get the wrong responses and quality is driven down.

I have started to collate case studies of worthwhile institutional efforts to improve educational quality, driven by performance indicators and levered by the current anxiety-provoking environment. Some deserve to work. But I suspect that there are far more changes resulting from “chasing the market” that will damage quality.
Postscript :  Graham Gibbs is former director of the Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford.

Source: Times Higher Education http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=419041&c=1