Recently, many universities in the UK received a government grade for teaching. For those who had sufficient data, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) offered gold, silver, and bronze awards. It is good to see teaching quality being taken seriously.
Until now, aspiring students had to rely mainly on rankings, which unfortunately tend to be biased towards research achievements. If you want to enter an academic career, knowing how an institution fares internationally in research publications is important - but as very few students opt for academia, this information is rather irrelevant for most.
More important are the scores in the National Student Survey (NSS), combined with the very recent assessment of teaching quality. Not surprisingly, the two universities that are at the top of the NSS also achieved gold status in the TEF: The University of Law and Buckingham University. Interestingly, both are tuition-driven and privately funded - they are what the UK sector calls 'alternative' providers.
One element is missing from TEF's assessment metric: how much fun is the teaching? I am not trying to be light-hearted: there is a serious and persistent misassumption that good education by definition has to be boring, the same way good medicine has to taste bitter. I frequently hear that tough education is character building. The idea that learning could be fun tends to be regarded with suspicion by parents and regulators alike.
Actually, human beings learn much better when they enjoy it. Making learning enjoyable should be a high priority for educators, as it motivates learners and make them understand things better and faster. Of course, I am not saying learning should only be about having fun - but we should strive to make it considerably more enjoyable than it is now.
One way of doing this is through playful competitions. For instance, developing the ability to work effectively as a team member - a crucial requirement for a successful career - is easier when taught as part of a competitive setting.
For example, I introduced Friday competitions for MBA classes which challenged students to resolve the business problems of a company in one day of hard work, with their pitches judged by the CEO. It helped students to work as a close knit team across various disciplines, allowing them to solve problems in a real world setting.
Gamification is another powerful tool. Educational games, if well designed, can be effective learning tools because they make studying much more fun. This is not just true for kids - this principle applies to any age group, as is proven by the rapidly growing edutainment industry. I have even used games as part of a selection process. In my experience, that is more effective than just considering A-level results and interviews. Smartly constructed games can give you so much more information about the individual and their potential.
Equally, simulations of real world situations can be successfully used to speed up learning in a pleasant way. Experiential learning such as doing a placement or a study abroad period is even more recognisable as an extremely powerful methodology.
These learning elements can really broaden the mind and introduce an experience to be remembered for the rest of one's life. How much can one really remember from long hours in a classroom listening to a teacher? Many precious classroom hours are lost in a grey mist of boredom (though we must acknowledge those who really know how to teach, often by making education memorable through stories and humour).
So when it comes to finding a place to study, the TEF and its grading as well as the results of the annual NSS are useful tools. Maybe one day, regulators shall fully recognise the importance of the quality of teaching and the role of integrating experience, games, and fun in learning.
The argument that studying has to be boring in order to prepare you for (equally boring) work is rather depressing. In fact, most work could do with a bit more fun to improve productivity; but that, of course, is another theme.
Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen is an economic historian. He is Rector at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and the Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS), an international group of universities and schools in the private sector.