Assessment of Teaching in Determining Institutional Excellence

Teaching must be at the heart of higher education.  

September 18, 2016

Almost all the global rankings of universities claim that they assess institutions across all the institutional core missions, including teaching. And prospective undergraduate students are invariably influenced by the global rankings in choosing the university where they want to study. But what is the strength of the teaching component in determining the global rankings of universities? Let us examine the two rankings that are considered the most influential – the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJT) and the Times Higher Education (THE).

In the SJT ranking, one of the criteria used is the quality of education. It carries a weight of 20% and is assessed by the number of alumni of the institutions having won a Nobel prize or a field medal. This is hardly a measure of quality of education. The quality of faculty, which one could argue influences the quality of teaching, is assessed by two criteria: the number of faculty having won a Nobel prize or a field medal (weight of 20%), and the number of highly cited researchers (20%), although both of these are really a measure of the research strength of the university. So, effectively, none of the criteria properly assesses the quality of teaching.

On the face of it, the THE ranking appears to place a greater emphasis on teaching than SJT. The teaching component here, carrying a total weight of 30%, has five criteria: the responses to an academic reputation survey on the prestige of the institution in teaching (15%); the staff-to-student ratio (4.5%); the doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio (2.25%); the doctorates awarded-to-academic staff ratio (6%); and the institutional income (2.25%). The responses to the survey can be very subjective, and the number of doctorates is more appropriate for research assessment. Only the staff-to-student ratio, and to some extent the institutional income, can be considered as indirect measures of quality of teaching. So again, overall, the criteria do not properly assess the quality of teaching.  

It has been rightly argued that it is very difficult to assess teaching for global rankings as, unlike data for assessing research, comparative international data for teaching are not available. So to a very large measure, the rankings are based on the research strengths of the institutions, not on their undergraduate teaching strengths. But are students applying for undergraduate studies aware of this? Very likely not. And one can well understand that, because of a lack of any other guidance, prospective students use the widely-publicized, research-focused global rankings as a measure of teaching excellence.

An interesting development in assessing excellence in teaching is currently under way in the UK. In 2015, the UK government announced the creation of a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to be implemented in 2017/18 with the objective of recognizing and rewarding excellent teaching and learning. The purpose of the TEF is ‘to rebalance the relationship between teaching and research in universities and put teaching at the heart of the system’. Initially, the three metrics that will be used and for which data are readily available are graduate employment, student retention and student satisfaction, the latter being determined from a national student survey. However, doubts have been expressed as to whether these are the most appropriate criteria for assessing the standards of teaching in institutions.

The TEF is not meant to be mandatory in the UK. Higher education institutions, public and private, will have to apply for participation, provided they meet certain eligibility conditions. As an incentive for participation, the government has announced that those institutions which have excelled in teaching would be rewarded with the right to increase their annual undergraduate tuition fees, currently capped at £9,000, to be aligned with inflation. Not surprisingly, this has aroused protests from the students, who have even threatened to boycott their participation in the student satisfaction survey, which could cripple the TEF.

Yet another hitch has cropped up. A recent study undertaken by the Times Higher Education newspaper has shown that if the three proposed criteria are applied, the universities in UK that appear at the top of the global rankings may be out-performed in the TEF exercise by smaller, less research-intensive universities which are currently ranked much below them. This is really not surprising. Even if the metrics used are questionable, it has long been suspected that the best globally ranked universities are not necessarily the best from an undergraduate teaching perspective. Whether motivated by this finding or not, several of the best-ranked UK universities have recently expressed doubts about their participation in the TEF, arguing that the efforts required for participation in TEF will be far greater than any financial benefits that they may derive from increased tuition fees. 

The TEF development in the UK shows that assessing quality of and establishing excellence in teaching in higher education are fraught with difficulties, even at national level.  Attempting to do the same at the global level would be a near impossible mission. And yet, as rightly pointed out by the UK government, teaching must be at the heart of higher education.  Any institutional excellence exercise that does not adequately incorporate a teaching component would have little meaning.  




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