Category Archives: Policy

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.

Diversity at The Physiological Society – with a focus on our scientific events

As we have highlighted previously, The Physiological Society was one of the first signatories to the Science Council’s Declaration on Diversity. We welcomed this initiative and the recognition that there is room to improve the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in all areas of science – including at our own Society.

The Society has taken its commitment to this Declaration seriously.  Under the guidance of our Diversity Champions, we have made some significant improvements to our knowledge and practices – made possible by the engagement of staff, members and Trustees, and the support of the Science Council and its networks.

Our work began with surveys of the staff and membership.  With the results used in conjunction with retrospective analyses and benchmarking studies, we have made the following changes and improvements since 2015 (note the list is not exhaustive):

  • Unconscious Bias training available to all staff, Council and Committee members.
  • Unconscious Bias workshop for members at our main conference
  • Mandatory targets of 25 % and aspirational targets of 33% for female speakers in all symposia and Departmental Seminar Schemes
  • Early Career Networking events

Signing the Declaration has catalysed a review of The Society’s activities from a different perspective; whilst we didn’t previously consider ourselves to be exclusive in any way, we are now aware that others may have considered us so. To address this, we intend to review each of our specific activities for their level of ‘inclusivity’, and to promote positive actions through regular  updates to our website and via email to the membership when needed.

Ensuring access to our scientific events is a critically important Diversity, Equality and Inclusion consideration for us. Physically bringing together hundreds of people to progress the discipline of physiology is a challenging and complex task, but The Society is keen to enable everyone to attend. To a greater or lesser extent, every physiologist will have a different requirement to facilitate and enhance their engagement at a scientific meeting (such as Physiology 2016). Some steps that we have taken to ensure that you feel welcome and able to engage have been listed below:

  • Funding available for those with caring responsibilities (For more information and how to apply, please email events@physoc.org)
  • Free guest registration
  • Rooms for breastfeeding mothers
  • Child care facilities, where possible and practical
  • Early career networking events
  • Catering for specialist diets
  • Prayer facilities
  • Live streaming of key lectures, available free of charge

Barriers and obstacles can be diverse, and sometimes hidden, but we are keen to address these wherever possible. So, whilst we take every step to ensure attendance and engagement is possible, we always welcome feedback for improvements and allowances. Please contact events@physoc.org to discuss any specific needs that you might have.

 

 

 

Changes to Freedom of Information

An independent commission, led by Lord Burns, is working to update the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Society has responded to the consultation for views on aspects of Freedom of Information with respect to information around the use of animals in research. This is a complicated area governed by UK and EU law which the commission is seeking to simplify. Our response, which can be read here, makes clear the need to limit the administrative burden placed on institutions carrying out research involving the use of animals, and the protection required for detailed proposals of research which carry scientific and commercial confidentiality risks.

The Comprehensive Spending Review

Despite calling science a “personal priority”, George Osborne’s summer budget this June saw it barely mentioned. However, having reviewed public finances and received spending projections from all government departments, 25 November saw the release of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and this time around Osborne’s plan for science in this country was spelt out. Despite warnings leaking from Whitehall that the best the scientific community could hope for was five more years of a flat-cash settlement to the science budget (further eroding the sector’s value due to inflation), the Chancellor surprised by promising real-terms protection to the £4.7 bn annual resource budget. He also stuck with the previously-announced £6.9 bn capital expenditure over the next five years. Innovate UK keeps a flat-cash guarantee to its £165 m funding, though some grants are being converted to loans, the extent of which is unclear. There is some concern that, with the low rate of inflation, the actual degree of increase to science funding will be lower than many hoped. This also does not change the UK’s position as the lowest investor in scientific research among the G8 nations.

Some specific research goals were mentioned with funding promised to work towards them, such as the 100,000 Genomes project and combatting antimicrobial resistance, while the research landscape in general will be reshaped in the image set out by Sir Paul Nurse in his review of the Research Councils. This will involve the creation of an overarching body called Research UK which sits above the Research Councils and facilitates better efficiency and governmental engagement. Concerns have been raised about the watering-down of the Haldane Principle due to this new structure, which contains a ministerial oversight committee. However, it is hoped that advice will flow both ways and lead to a government far better informed around scientific trends and developments.

The Chancellor gave broad outlines in his speech, and while the Spending Review document provides some more detail there are aspects where uncertainty remains over the fine print. The science budget now includes £1.5 bn over five years going to the Global Challenges Fund, which was previously administered by the Department for International Development. The restrictions on allocation of this funding are not known. Further, while the science budget was protected by a ring-fence through the last parliament, changes may have brought other costs into this budget making it need to stretch further. Answers to these points of uncertainty will come along in due course, with many organisations in the science policy sector poring over announcements concerning the implementation of the Spending Review.

The Higher Education Green Paper

On 6 November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) released its long-awaited Green Paper setting out its intentions to change practices and structures around higher education. The paper, which can be downloaded here, covered a number of topics, introducing many key changes. Its overall emphasis rests on the marketisation of higher education provision, driving up teaching quality to make courses seem more attractive.

  • The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) are to be merged into a new body called the Office for Students (OfS), functioning as a regulator for universities. OfS will have a responsibility to act in the interests of students by ensuring stable, effective governance of universities and value for money in degree provision, as well as ensuring baseline quality in student learning and experience and widening access to higher education.
  • Measures are being introduced to improve teaching quality, primarily the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Initially this will be a pass/fail exercise based on successful QAA assessment, but in future will have multiple levels, each allowing a greater rise in tuition fees for qualifying institutions. The TEF will be metric-based and focus on student outcomes, diversity/inclusion, retention and other available data in its first incarnations. Despite opposition to the idea, it seems likely that TEF scores will be linked to the ability of universities to raise their course fees, with a higher grade allowing a higher rise (capped at the rate of inflation).
  • Student assessment will be encouraged to use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system, allowing greater distinction to be drawn between students leaving with the same classification of degree.
  • Changes will be made to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to modernise the process and reduce the burden it places on universities.
  • New higher education institutions (HEIs) will have a faster, simplified process to become recognised universities with access to funding and no student caps. Processes will also be in place for HEIs to leave the marketplace with minimised impact on students. Plans must be in place to allow students to complete their course elsewhere or receive compensation if a degree course is discontinued.
  • Universities may become exempt from Freedom of Information requests, bringing them into line with private higher education providers.

BIS are consulting on the changes laid out in the Green Paper until 15 January 2016. After this point, they will release a White Paper detailing proposed legislation, then, assuming this passes through Parliament, it will become law. These changes are going to affect all research and teaching staff in universities. They will affect all forthcoming students and their families. They will affect some past students through changes to loan repayments! It is imperative they are sensible, proportionate and well-informed. The Society is seeking input from its members on their views towards the proposals, focusing mainly on the Teaching Excellence Framework. You can read a short summary produced by the Royal Society of Biology of the questions in the Green Paper relating to the TEF proposals here. We would be interesting in hearing views on this aspect of the Green Paper or any of its other proposals; please contact policy@physoc.org with your comments. We will be accepting comments until Friday 8 January; after this point the responses received will form the basis of The Society’s submission to BIS.

What do we mean by Policy?

The Physiological Society aims to represent the interests of its members and the wider scientific community to government and policymakers. It also informs its members and the public on the nature and effects of the policy environment for science. The nature of policy activity means it is an ongoing conversation and a highly collaborative environment.

The Society’s work on policy aims to identify and act upon issues that are of importance to our Members and to physiology as a discipline. We engage with a number of stakeholders, both within and outside of Government, and policymakers, to promote physiology in science and education policy.

Please visit our website or email policy@physoc.org if you would like further information on The Society’s policy activities.

Fighting cancer: Animal research at Cambridge

A new film from the University of Cambridge looks at how mice are helping the fight against cancer and the facilities in which they are housed, and explores issues of animal welfare and the search for replacements.