Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Quality by the Skipload?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Quality by the Skipload?

Article excerpt

Paul Ashwin on the 'common sense' arguments about contact hours as a reliable measure of teaching excellence

Ministers are concerned that despite large differences in the quality of novels, they all seem to cost the same. From now on, under the National Assessment of Fiction Framework (NAFF), the quality of novels will be scientifically measured according to the number of pages they contain, and prices will be set accordingly. Ministers are said to be delighted to have finally proved that Riders, Jilly Cooper's 900-page epic, is three times better than Jane Austen's insubstantial Pride and Prejudice.

This scenario makes as much sense as proposals to measure the quality of degree programmes by the number of contact hours they provide. Yet this is what is currently being explored as part of the teaching excellence framework (TEF) in England, the latest in a growing number of national higher education teaching excellence initiatives being developed around the world.

Producing a high-quality degree programme involves designing a range of experiences that allow students to develop an understanding of the knowledge they are engaging with, just as writing a novel involves designing a narrative that draws readers in and invites them to develop meaning from what they are reading. Clearly a certain number of hours are necessary for a course to be considered a degree, just as a certain number of pages are necessary for a story to be considered a novel. However, adding hours to a well-designed course will not improve it, any more than adding pages will improve a good novel. This point is supported by the 2016 UK Engagement Survey ("Independent study more useful than contact hours, study suggests", News, 3 November).

The other striking parallel is that both of these purported measures of quality are incredibly easy to rig. In the above scenario, publishers would surely reduce page sizes, increase font sizes or include longer blurbs or biographies. Similarly, faced with a measure of contact hours, universities would redefine what counts as one. Suddenly the definition would include academics' office hours, regardless of whether anyone turned up. And what about throwing in that staff-student social event? …

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