Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Society leads learned societies’ input to TEF development

By Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society

The Physiological Society has worked on higher education policy for many years. The key issue in this area is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), designed to improve teaching quality and give students more information when selecting their course.

The TEF is being developed in iterations, with attention focused at the moment on how to split its assessment down to subject level. The Department for Education (DfE) is developing this with input from many sector representatives, including Universities UK (UUK).

The Society convened a meeting with UUK and representatives from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Biology, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute of Physics. This gave the opportunity for a wide range of views from the STEM sector to be aired and ideas for the future TEF to be discussed in detail.

The first phase of discussion covered the operation of the current institutional-level TEF. This is the first version of TEF to base its awards on metrics, covering the areas of teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes. There is general acceptance that these high level themes are appropriate, but much less satisfaction with the specific metrics chosen within them. The benchmarking process to set institutional targets is also contentious. The metrics are supplemented by a written submission, but it is acknowledged that the main element of the result is the metric scores. Exceed enough benchmarks and a gold award is given; fall below enough and you rate bronze. Given this is the case, there is a disturbing lack of trust in the National Student Survey and its reporting on student satisfaction. Similarly, the Destination of Leavers from HE (DLHE) survey only gives a snapshot six months after graduation, at which point many graduates have not yet entered their careers or made significant decisions.

The Society has long focused on the reward and recognition of teaching in HE. All participants agreed that the TEF as it stands does not touch on the status of teaching within universities, even though a good way to increase teaching quality would be to encourage and reward those staff members who focus on teaching. The trend in reality is towards increasing casualisation of teaching, including the use of zero-hours contracts and other non-permanent arrangements for teaching. A better appreciation of teaching staff by the TEF would be likely to help it achieve its original goals.

The conversation then moved on to proposals to increase the specificity of the TEF, moving to subject-level assessment. Current plans envision a blend of subject- and institution-level factors being combined to produce an overall score. Awards may potentially be given to institutions and departments separately. It is proving difficult to define the correct scale to identify a “subject”. Proposals exist for a TEF which combines certain schools and courses into units of assessment, but these may not be universally accepted. An alternative under consideration is an assessment of how much departments deviate (above or below) from the overall quality rating of the entire institution. The model used by Athena SWAN for department and institutional awards was discussed and is being evaluated.

The participants considered the meeting to be very successful, and the UUK representatives were pleased to receive a different viewpoint to that from the heads of institutions. The Society hopes to convene this group again and continue working to make the TEF as effective as possible.

If you have any comments or would like further detail, please contact policy@physoc.org.

The physiology of stress

By Jessica Suter, Undergraduate of The Open University and Events Manager for Eaton Park Science Day

Stress is a popular word in our society and is thought to be the biggest contributor to workplace sickness and depression. But what exactly is it?

Living in the human zoo, we are constantly exposed to stressors, especially those deemed unnecessary on a survival level such as consumerism and the pursuit of happiness. Stress is usually linked to just the mind – anger, upset and irrationalities – but it actually affects our entire body (HSE, 2016).

According to recent statistics, the total number of working days lost due to stress in 2015/2016 alone was 11.7 million (HSE, 2016) with a strong association found between unemployment and suicide (NHS Behind the Headlines, 2015). As well as affecting mental health, stress is also linked to chronic pain, a condition that affects just under 28 million adults in the UK (Fayaz. A, et.al., 2016).

Stress is defined as a physiological or biological response to a stressor. The stress response system is a common pathway across organisms, which is designed to temporarily assign energy currency from areas of the body considered useless in a stressful situation to other areas in the body that are beneficial for survival.

Whilst such components are considered an adaptation, when exposed to chronic stress (where the body is exposed to long periods of stress psychologically and/or physiologically) these components can cause all kinds of life-effecting issues such as high blood pressure, decreased immune function, or fertility issues.

There have been numerous studies considering how stress plays a part in debilitating conditions of the body and mind focusing on the physiological pathways of the stress response, such as the HPA, sympathetic nervous system, amygdala, and hypothalamus. What does the future hold for us humans living in a crowded and highly-pressured society?

Some experts focus on a need for pharmacologic interventions, whilst others look for longer term solutions such as psychotherapy. One interesting piece of research I have come across focuses on the idea that encouraging an understanding of stress, coping methods, and the impacts on health within individuals will advance the treatment of stress (Segerstrom. S et.al., 2012).

The Physiological Society’s annual theme ‘Making Sense of Stress’ is looking to contribute toward public engagement and education about the effects of stress, and research across the globe looking to alleviate chronic stress and its related ailments.

banners-making-sense-of-stress-event

Tune in as we go LIVE this Tuesday, 21 February at 18:00 GMT, (or in person if you’re in London) for a panel and discussion chaired by Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever and one of the leaders of minds@work, and featuring neuroscientist Professor Stafford Lightman and occupational psychologist Professor Gail Kinman.

References:

Fayaz, A., Croft, P., Langford, R. M., Donaldson, L. J. and Jones, G. T. (2016) ‘Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies.’, BMJ open, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, vol. 6, no. 6, p. e010364 [Online]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27324708 (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Health and Safety Executive (2016) ‘Statistics – Work-related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain (GB)’, HSE [Online]. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/ (Accessed 29 November 2016).

McLannahan, H. (2004) “Chapter 3: Stress” SK277 Book 4: Life’s Challenges,  in The Open University. (eds), Plymouth, Latimer Trend and Company Ltd, pp. 79-113

NHS Choices (2015) ‘Unemployment and job insecurity linked to increased risk of suicide – Health News – NHS Choices’, Department of Health [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/02February/Pages/Unemployment-linked-to-increased-risk-of-suicide.aspx (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Segerstrom, S. C. and O’Connor, D. B. (2012) ‘Stress, health and illness: Four challenges for the future’, Psychology & Health, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 128–140 [Online]. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870446.2012.659516 (Accessed 29 November 2016).