A day after my blogpost appeared, there was a select committee meeting of the department of Business, Innovation and Skills to take oral evidence on topics relating to the Green Paper. The oral evidence is available here as a transcript. This is fascinating, because there appeared to be a difference of opinion between the Minister, Jo Johnson, and the others giving evidence in terms of their views of the state of teaching in our Universities. The most telling part of the session was when Jo Johnson was challenged on his previous use of the word ‘lamentable’ to describe teaching in parts of our higher education system. I am reproducing the transcript here in full, despite its length, as it is important context to what comes next:
Chair: Can I take you back to your speech on 9 September about higher education fulfilling our potential? There is a particular passage in there that is really interesting, talking about a family and varying levels of experience. May I quote you? “This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system.” Could you tell us where that lamentable teaching is?Johnson clearly wanted to move away from discussions about his choice of words and onto the ‘evidence’. I’m going to focus here on what he said about results from the National Student Survey (NSS). There are many pertinent questions about how far the NSS can be taken as evidence of teaching quality, but I will leave those to one side and just focus on what the Minister said about it, which was:
Joseph Johnson: Thank you very much for having me, and I will certainly come to that in just one second. What I want to say is that it is a pleasure to be here to give evidence before you, and I am delighted at the interest the Committee is taking in this very important subject. There is extraordinary excellence across our higher education system; that is the first thing to say. We have a great university system in this country, it is one of our national success stories, and it is a terrific calling card for us on the global stage. It is very important to put that frame in context out there, but of course the sector cannot stand still. University systems around the world are becoming more and more competitive. Developing countries are putting in place stronger and stronger frameworks for their own university systems, and in that environment it is incumbent on us to continue to make a great sector greater still. That is the opening frame of how I see the sector. It is continuing and continuous improvement, and that is all the more important for us, as a sector, at a time when we are seeing ever-increasing numbers of our young people go through university. We are now at a stage of mass higher education in this country, with about 47% of people likely to go through higher education at some point in their lives, and it is vital for us, as a Government, that we ensure that they are getting the best-quality experience for the time and for the money that they are investing in higher education. You referred back to a speech I gave to Universities UK and I used that word; it made a point. It made a point that there is, essentially, patchiness in provision and I am happy, before you, to give evidence of where I see patchiness, if that is helpful.
Chair: Would you use the word “lamentable” again?
Joseph Johnson: I certainly made the point, and the point was made in order to highlight the fact that there is patchiness and variability in provision.
Chair: “Patchiness” is not “lamentable” though.
Joseph Johnson: Patchiness and variability are the features that I want to stress before you today. I am quite happy to give plenty of supporting evidence of that and I think the sector, in its responses to you as a Committee, has also agreed that there is a need to focus on the quality of teaching in our institutions. I am happy to give more evidence on that, if you want.
Chair: I would be very keen for you to give evidence to us, but just to push you on this, “lamentable” is an extraordinarily strong word. Would you use it again?
Joseph Johnson: I think there are patches of poor-quality provision and whether or not we want to use that word—
Chair: Lamentable patches?
Joseph Johnson: Whether we want to use that word, it certainly made a point. It highlighted the point I was trying to make. I do not see the need to repeat it ad nauseam, but I think I made my point.
In the NSS 2015 survey, two thirds of providers are performing well below their peers on at least one aspect of the student experience; and 44% of providers are performing well below their peers on at least one aspect of the teaching, assessment and feedback part of the student experience.I was surprised by these numbers for two reasons: first, they seemed at odds with other reports about the NSS that had indicated a high level of student satisfaction. Second, they seemed statistically weird. How can you have a high proportion of providers doing very poorly without dragging down the average – which we know to be high? I looked in vain online for a report that might be the source of these figures. Meanwhile, I decided to look myself at the NSS 2015 results, which fortunately are available for download here.
All items in the NSS are rated from 1 (definitely disagree) to 5 (definitely agree). I focused on full-time courses, and combined all data from each institution, rather than breaking it down by course, and I excluded any institutions with fewer than 80 student responses, as estimates from such small numbers would be less reliable. Then, to familiarise myself with the data, and get an overall impression of findings, I plotted the distribution of ratings for the final overview item in the survey, i.e., “Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course”. As you can see in Figure 1, the overwhelming majority of students either ‘agree’ or ‘definitely agree’ with this statement. Few institutions get less than 75% approval, and none has high rates of disapproval.
|Figure 1: Distribution of responses to item 22: "Overall I am satisfied with the quality of the course"|
Johnson’s comments, however, concerned individual items on the survey.
As you can see in the table below, there is variation between items in ratings, with lower mean scores for those concerning feedback and smooth running of the course, but overall the means are at the positive end of the scale for all items.
|1. Staff are good at explaining things.||4.19 (0.11)|
|2. Staff have made the subject interesting.||4.12 (0.14)|
|3. Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching.||4.3 (0.14)|
|4. The course is intellectually stimulating.||4.19 (0.17)|
|5. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.||4.02 (0.19)|
|6. Assessment arrangements and marking have been fair.||4.01 (0.19)|
|7. Feedback on my work has been prompt.||3.79 (0.24)|
|8. I have received detailed comments on my work.||3.95 (0.23)|
|9. Feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand.||3.85 (0.21)|
|10. I have received sufficient advice and support with my studies.||4.09 (0.16)|
|11. I have been able to contact staff when I needed to.||4.27 (0.16)|
|12. Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices.||4.11 (0.15)|
|13. The timetable works efficiently as far as my activities are concerned.||4.09 (0.18)|
|14. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.||3.95 (0.24)|
|15. The course is well organised and is running smoothly.||3.87 (0.27)|
|16. The library resources and services are good enough for my needs.||4.19 (0.26)|
|17. I have been able to access general IT resources when I needed to.||4.28 (0.23)|
|18. I have been able to access specialised equipment, facilities or rooms when I needed to.||4.11 (0.23)|
|19. The course has helped me to present myself with confidence.||4.18 (0.13)|
|20. My communication skills have improved.||4.31 (0.13)|
|21. As a result of the course, I feel confident in tackling unfamiliar problems.||4.21 (0.12)|
|22. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course||4.16 (0.18)|
In order to reproduce Johnson’s figures, I had to work out what he meant when he said an institution performed “well below” its peers. I looked at two ways of computing this. First, I just considered how many institutions fell below an absolute cutoff on ratings: I picked out cases where there were 20% or more ratings in categories 1 (strongly disagree) or 2 (disagree); this was entirely arbitrary, and determined by my personal view that an institution where one in five students is dissatisfied might be looking to do something about this. Using this cutoff, I found that 24% of institutions did poorly on at least one item in the range 1-9 (covering teaching assessment and feedback), and 35% were rated poorly on at least one item from the full set of 22 items. This was about half the level of problems reported by Johnson.
I wondered whether Johnson had used a relative rather than absolute criterion for judging failure. The fact that he talked of providers performing ‘well below their peers’ suggested he might have done so. One way to make relative judgements is to use z-scores, i.e. for every item, you take the mean and standard deviation across all institutions and then compute a z-score which represents how far this institution scores above or below the average on that item. Using a cutoff of one standard deviation, I obtained numbers that looked more like those reported by Johnson – 43% doing poorly on at least one of the items in the range 1-9, and 59% doing poorly on at least one item from the entire set of 22. However, there is a fatal flaw to this method; unless the data have a strange distribution, the proportions scoring below a z-score cutoff are entirely predictable from the normal distribution: for a one SD cutoff, it will be around 16 per cent. You’d get that percentage, even if everyone was doing wonderfully, or everyone was doing very poorly, because you are not anchoring your criterion to any external reality. For anyone trained in statistics this is a trivial point, but to explain it for those who are not, just look again at Table 1. Take, for instance, item 21, where the mean rating is 4.21 and standard deviation 0.12. These scores are tightly packed and so a score of 4.09 is statistically unusual (one SD lower than average), but it would be harsh to regard it as evidence of poor performance, given that this is still well in the positive range.
I have no idea what method Johnson relied upon for the statistics he presented: I am trying to find out and if I do I will add the information to this post. But meanwhile, I have to say I find it disturbing that NSS data appear to have been spun to paint the state of university teaching in as bad a light as possible. We know that politicians spin things all the time, but it is a serious matter if a Government minister presents public data in a misleading way when giving evidence before a select committee. Those working in primary and secondary education, and in our hard-pressed health service, are already familiar with endless reorganisations that are justified by arguing that we ‘cannot stand still’ and must ‘remain competitive’. We are losing good teachers and doctors who have just had enough. We need to draw back from extending this approach to our Higher Education system. Of course, I am not saying it is perfect, and we need to be self-critical, but the imposition of yet another major shake-up, when we have a system that has an international reputation for excellence, would be immensely damaging, and could leave us with a shortage of the talent that universities depend upon.
NB. You can reproduce what I did by looking at this R script, where my analysis is documented. This has flexiblity to look at alternative ways of defining the key item in Johnson’s analysis, i.e. the definition of “well below one’s peers”.
PS 14th Dec 2015: Another source of evidence cited in the Green Paper is this report from HEPI. Well worth a read. Confirms widespread student satisfaction with courses. Does show that 'value for money' is rated much higher in Scotland (low fees) than England (£9K per annum) http://www.hepi.ac.uk/2015/06/04/2015-academic-experience-survey/
PS. 16th Dec 2015. I have now had a response from BIS. It is rather hard to follow, but indicates that they do use a relative rather than absolute criterion for expected scores. Expected scores are also benchmarked to take into account student characteristics. I am currently struggling to understand how 66% of institutions can score more than 3 SD below a benchmark on at least one item, given that a z-score as extreme as -3 is expected for only 0.1% of a population. When I get the opportunity, I will look at the HEFCE source they recommend to see if it offers any enlightenment.
Here is the BIS response:
I had previously contacted HEFCE who explained they had not been involved in generating the figures reported by BIS and suggested I contact BIS directly for information They also said:
PPS 20th December 2015
I have now created a script in R that creates percentages close to those reported by BIS. The approach is, as I indicate above, still reliant on a statistical definition of 'below expectation' that means that, regardless of how well institutions are performing overall, there will always be some who perform in this range - unless everyone has 100% satisfaction ratings. Those who are interested in the technical details can find the relevant data and scripts on Open Science Framework: osf.io/aus52