HE teaching and student satisfaction: how (not) to measure the quality of teaching

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Will TEF measure the right things in the right ways? Dr Maren Thom issues a challenge to current measures of 'quality'.

The impending implementation of the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) necessitates asking how tensions can be resolved between two models of learning: students as consumers and students as participants in academia?

In the move toward the commodification of higher education, fundamental questions such as the role of teaching and how its purpose can be measured have emerged. As pointed out by Times Higher Education , one of the purposes of TEF is to ‘provide students with the information they need to judge teaching quality’, representing a move towards regarding HE as a service, with the student as the consumer of education (Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion: 2009).

However, for the student consumer to judge the teaching quality they have to make a judgment call on the quality of teaching before purchase. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that students are not always the best judge when it comes to the quality of teaching. The customer in this case is not always right.

In a poll conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in autumn 2015, and reported in the THE on 7 January 2016, 1,005 full-time undergraduates were asked how ‘helpful they found  a range of possible metrics on teaching quality.’  The outcome was summarised in the analysis of the survey by Graham Gibbs, the former director of the Oxford Learning Institute at the University of Oxford, who says that the survey demonstrates how it is “not always appropriate to respond to student preferences”.

For good reason. According to the survey the students believe some of the best measures of good teaching are factors such as ‘The proportion of students who achieve good degrees’ and ‘Graduate employment statistics’, two factors that are defined and conditioned outside teaching. As Gibbs points out, getting a good degree and a good job are “both largely a function of the quality of students rather than the quality of a university’s teaching”. It is their own intellectual achievements that fundamentally shape the students’ prospects on the job market.

These factors point to the possibility of a deeper phenomenon, a confusion about the relationship between the role of HE teaching and the expected outcomes of teaching. Students often expect teaching to  transform them in a one way process, rather than helping them to transform themselves. Students see higher education as an object for them to be formed by, rather than a facilitator for them to transform themselves.

This move, from active learner to passive consumer, speaks of a greater cultural shift which sees humans as determined by circumstance rather than being the agents of their own lives. And it is this debate about personal agency which lies at the heart around the purpose and quality of teaching in HE.

The fluidity of meaning in respect to teaching in HE is thrown into relief when looking at what students ranked lowest in the poll: The ‘External review by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’, which includes teaching recognition in form of HEA Fellowships. The idea of teaching with measurable, albeit highly political, standards which could be outside ‘the vocational and professional demands of [students’] current or future roles’ (Pratt et al 1999: 595) seems to be not only irrelevant but meaningless to many students.

An uncritical acceptance of the tendency toward the marketisation of teaching, which sees teaching as a means to shape the student, could ultimately lead to change of what it means to be a graduate. It may well work to undermine the possibility of the formation of a person who is able to think critically. Marginson writes that students who become solely concerned with the acquisition of skills can lose a capacity for criticism (Marginson 2009). However, as Daymon and Durkin note: ‘critical thinking … appears as the nexus of higher education, industry and the knowledge economy,’ (2013: 598).

Critical thinking is a complex skill, and it is one that relies on one’s capability to see the self as creator of new knowledge and agent of one’s own ideas.

Dr Maren Thom, January 2016


Daymon, C. And Durkin, K. (2013). ‘The impact of marketisation on postgraduate career preparedness in a high skills economy’, in Studies in Higher Education, 38: 4.

Marginson, S. (2002). ‘Postgraduate training in the social sciences: Knowledge, engagement, vocation’, in Journal of Australian Studies, 26: 74.

Molesworth, M., Nixon, E. and Scullion, R. (2009). ‘Having, being and higher education: the marketisation of the university and the transformation of the student into consumer’ in Teaching in Higher Education 14 (3) 277 – 287.

Pratt, J., Hillier, Y. and Mace, J. (1999). ‘Markets and motivations in part-time postgraduate education’, in Studies in Higher Education, 24: 1.