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Information barriers

The teaching excellence framework should aid social mobility, but it also risks damaging it, write Anand Shukla and Paul Clarke.

Prospective students need better information in making decisions about higher education. That is beyond question. In the introduction to its guidance on the teaching excellence framework, the Higher Education Funding Council for England contains a welcome reminder that one of the main purposes of the exercise is “better informing students’ choices about what and where to study”. The recent higher education white paper identified poor information as a major problem for young people choosing a university, and research from both the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Sutton Trust found this was a particular problem for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is especially significant as universities seek to achieve challenging targets to double the number of disadvantaged students and increase the number of black and minority ethnic students by 20 per cent by 2020.

However, the role the teaching excellence framework plays in widening participation risks being obscured by controversies about its exact design. It is essential to get this design right, and those in the widening participation community are heartened to see the exercise include measures such as splitting metrics by socio-economic background and the recommendation to consult students for contextual data. But it is important to remember that what is right for universities isn’t necessarily right for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Chris Husbands, who chairs the teaching excellence framework panel, describes the exercise as an evolving process that will take time to perfect. Yet the students who base their choices based on the first versions won’t have the luxury of perfect information. For them, how the teaching excellence framework is presented is almost as important as how it is compiled.

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