Comparison frameworks are destroying higher education

Our Head of Culture discusses the problems surrounding comparing degrees.

Maud Webster
22nd February 2022
The problems surrounding comparing degrees are only becoming more concerning. Image Credit: Pixabay
Last month UK Universities announced a concerning new framework to "categorise low value degrees”, promising to assess the “value” of degrees at different institutions based on student satisfaction, graduate employment, contribution to economic growth, and other similar metrics. This is a move we need to try and obstruct, and is an alarming decision which has the intention of further monetising higher education. 

Metric comparisons of courses are nothing new, with the National Students Survey (NSS) and university leagues having been around for years. There’s been extensive objections to these forms of ranking in the last few years, particularly the NSS, with both the NUS and UCU having supported boycotts of the final-year survey, highlighting how the results of the NSS will be used to justify future tuition fee increases and decisions to cut courses, departments and staff.

Similarly, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) by the Tories in 2017, which categorises universities as Gold, Silver and Bronze was heavily criticised by the higher education industry. As Jess Patison wrote for Novara Media many years ago, this framework is an incredibly “simplistic” way to view education, and ignores existing class inequality. She argued the TEF “represents a ridiculously simplistic measure of success which wilfully ignores the stacks of research demonstrating that people with higher-earning parents will go into higher-paying graduate jobs, in a system that has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with class”.

All these rankings and frameworks compound into one objective: creating an internal market within higher education and making universities compete in the interests of profit. Ultimately, students are being treated as customers which institutions are fighting for, rather than learners. 

Ultimately, students are being treated as customers which institutions are fighting for, rather than learners. 

Lecturers are already at breaking point. We’re in the midst of strikes, with lecturers hoping to achieve fair working environments and protected pensions. The introduction of more frameworks only serve to increase pressure placed on lecturers to perform better under increasingly stressful workloads. Beyond having basic compassion for a group of workers trying to salvage a fracturing and hostile industry, having overworked lecturers on volatile contracts will negatively affect you as a student. And the “low value” framework will only accentuate that. 

There’s always been jokes like “you’ll never get a job with X degree”, which further contributes to the idea that you go to university as a long-term investment to financially ‘better yourself’ rather than to enjoy the student experience and learn about something you're interested in. But the introduction of the “low value degrees” framework is a sinister move. It’s not as simple as “do this course, you’ll be promised this job” and these metric frameworks do not have the capability to consider the complex nuances of the higher education system.

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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