Media Release

Sir Anthony Seldon publishes plan to tackle teaching quality at British universities

In a new paper, published by the Social Market Foundation think-tank, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Sir Anthony Seldon, argues that teaching at university level is not consistently good enough and sets out an original plan to improve teaching in British universities without excessive bureaucracy or compromising individual and original teaching styles.

In the paper, entitled Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities, Seldon pours cold water on the metric repeatedly cited by the status quo when stating that teaching at universities perfectly good enough – that 86% of students in the UK are ‘satisfied’ with the quality of their course. This is a very weak statistic if being used to justify that serious improvement in teaching is not required.

Commenting on the paper, Sir Anthony said:

 “The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, is absolutely right to have given the question of teaching such a high priority. The renewed focus on research has tipped the balance, always precarious, from teaching to research.

“It is abundantly clear in too many universities today that the leadership and the academics care far more about their research than about the quality of the learning experience of their students.

“Whilst much teaching is excellent – and I want to stress that I believe it is – much could be improved. The academics I know mostly share a passion to teach their students as well as they can. Many are frustrated by the lack of priority given to teaching. There is considerable scope for greater professionalization, sharing and leaning within higher education and between HE and schools.

“Too little is known about where the excellent teaching is in universities today, and the quality of leadership from the top on teaching in universities is inconsistent. The lack of consistency in the emphasis given to teaching quality across universities’ teaching is the heart of the problem.

“My own career spans both schools and higher education – After my doctorate at LSE, and a spell as a research fellow there, I trained as a schoolteacher [where he won the teacher of the year prize at King’s College, London]. I worked in schools for almost thirty years, for nearly twenty years as head of Brighton College and then Wellington College, whilst simultaneously working with academics, writing books, editing journals and heading a research institute.

“I am now one of a relatively small number who have crossed from running schools to heading a university. The proposals I set out in ‘Solving the conundrum’ are workable and will achieve the aim of improving teaching at British universities.”

Sir Anthony’s paper draws on wide range of thought from prominent academics, vice chancellors, school leaders and sector journalists. It also utilises a survey of nearly 100 heads of sixth forms on teaching excellence, 60% of whom are from the state sector, carried out by the University of Buckingham in January 2016, which found that:

  • 70% of heads of sixth forms who responded to the survey believe that the quality of teaching in higher education ‘needs to be taken more seriously’
  • Only 7% of sixth form heads surveyed believe that universities have struck the right balance between their research and teaching roles
  • 89% of sixth form heads believe universities have much to learn from schools when it comes to learning and teaching methods.
  • However, two thirds of heads of sixth forms surveyed said that they believe that universities are “not very interested’ in what goes on in schools and colleges, notably about the curriculum, learning and teaching methods. 7% said they felt universities were “not interested at all”.
  • When asked which are the best subject areas for teaching at university, 65% say in professional degrees e.g. medicine and law, 30% say STEM subjects, 5% arts and humanities and none in social sciences.

Key points from the paper:

Sir Anthony rejects linking increases in fees to performance on TEF: “This is a fraught debate with merit on both sides of the argument. Enhanced and much more accurate information on teaching will enhance competition between universities. Greater numbers will want to join those universities ranked for teaching better, which will receive more revenue. It will give a huge injection of competition and choice.”

Sir Anthony suggests a list of ten criteria – the ‘Big Ten’ – that all good teaching exhibits [See Annex A] and proposes a five-point grading system for academic teachers, based roughly on the levels used in the REF [See Annex B].

Other key policy recommendations include:

  • Vice-Chancellors should become squarely responsible for leading the quality of the teaching and learning experience within their institutions.
  • Responsibility for improving teaching quality must be placed upon each university to be a self-improvinginstitution, and upon academics’ intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.
  • Each teaching academic should be assessed on the quality of their teaching under specific headings devised by the university (modelled on the “Big Ten” [See Annex A]).
  • Teaching at university needs to be treated by university leaders much more professionally.
  • More recognition needs to be given to learning and institutional culture.
  • All universities should devise and run their own Initial Teacher Training (ITT) programme
  • Student feedback systems should be completely remodelled.
  • Technology designed to enhance teaching and learning at university needs to be embraced in a far more uniform and dynamic way
  • Teaching is to be celebrated in all university departments on an equal footing with research.
  • Meaningful interactions between universities and schools become regularised, and the mile-wide gap between school and university for students needs to be bridged.


Notes to editors:

Media contact

To arrange an interview with Sir Anthony Seldon please contact Diana Blamires at the University of Buckingham via or 01280 820213. 

About the author

Sir Anthony Seldon is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham and a leading contemporary historian, educationalist, commentator and political author.

He was Master of Wellington College, one of Britain’s leading independent schools, until 2015. He is the author or editor of over 40 books on contemporary history, politics and education, was the co-founder and first director of the Centre for Contemporary British History, is co-founder of Action for Happiness and is honorary historical adviser to 10 Downing Street.

His many other activities include being on the First World War Centenary Culture Committee, established by the Culture Secretary in 2013 and governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

About the Social Market Foundation

The Social Market Foundation is an independent, non-partisan think tank which develops innovative ideas across a broad range of economic and social policy. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well.

Appendix A

Anthony Seldon’s ‘Big Ten’ characteristics that all good teaching exhibits:

  1. Engagement of all students. In the digital age, it is more vital than ever that teachers learn how to actively engage the attention of their students.
  2. Deep teacher subject knowledge, informed by the latest research / scholarship. Digitalisation means that students more than ever before can have access to information in real-time. Teachers need, as never before, to be on top of their fields, and to have a depth of understanding, in order to set the ubiquitous information into context.
  3. Clarity of teacher exposition / organisation, and understanding of course requirements. Far too often, teachers can be unclear in their communication, or can fail to spread the material to be studied out over the time available in a balanced way. Students need to feel complete confidence that their teacher understands what they need to learn, and the pace at which learning is to take place.
  4. Forging of positive relations, and a genuine and felt desire to see students make progress. Students learn better when they have a good relationship with their teacher. Students have a right to feel that their teachers have a positive interest in their academic development.
  5. Willingness and skill at engaging in discussion and debate, and asking challenging questions. The best teachers know how to pose the questions that make the students think. Great teachers let the students work out the answers, rather than tell them the answers themselves.
  6. Highest expectations which stretch all students. The best teachers know exactly how high each student can aspire, and helps them to achieve at that level.
  7. Setting and assessment of purposeful and relevant assignments. Assignments are vital as a way of testing understanding, and consolidated learning. Assessment by the teacher needs to show the student what they need to do to improve.
  8. Ability to communicate in a differentiated way appropriate to the capabilities and potential of students. Classes are made up of students of vastly different capabilities and needs. The great teacher understands each individual student and addresses them appropriately. Learning is the end, and the best teachers help the student to become autonomous learners.
  9. Promotion and achievement of independent learning, recognising that most learning will take place away from the academic.
  10. Technical mastery, e.g. a voice that projects well and is audible, and mastery of technology. There is no point in having teachers, however brilliant and empathetic, if they cannot be heard clearly, or if they can’t use technology appropriately.

Appendix B

Four stars The teaching succeeds to an outstanding degree in achieving the criteria in the Big Ten. The teaching ranks among the very best in the university.
Three stars The teaching quality is a very good standard, but exhibits aspects for improvement.
Two stars The teaching is generally good, allowing the students to make progress in their learning. But it is not inspiring or notably motivating.
One star The teaching is acceptable only. Students make progress but patchily and at too low a level.
Unclassified The teaching quality is unacceptable. Students do not make progress and lack full confidence in the quality of the teacher.



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