Back to school with Jo Johnson

This morning Jo Johnson gave his much-anticipated speech about higher education to an audience of sector leaders and the media. Titled ‘Teaching at the heart of the system’, Johnson used the opportunity to launch his thinking and policy ideas to the sector.

As a result, we now have an early but timely sense about the shape of HE policy as it is likely to develop over this Parliament.

The TEF

The headline is clearly the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for which there will be a green paper and consultation in the Autumn. For now it remains quite vague, but the stated aims give a tantalising glimpse at what might be in store:

To ensure all students receive an excellent teaching experience that encourages original thinking, drives up engagement and prepares them for the world of work.

To build a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as great researchers.

To stimulate a diverse HE market and provide students with the information they need to judge teaching quality – in the same way they can already compare a faculty’s research rating.

To recognise those institutions that do the most to welcome students from a range of backgrounds and support their retention and progression to further study or a graduate job.

I expect the TEF to include a clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics. This should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape.

The last point will prove particularly fascinating to followers of the twists and turns over quality over the past few months i.e. HEFCE’s intention is to do away with institutional review and QAA and lower the burden on institutions. It is therefore interesting to imagine how a separate external process might emerge in the future – maybe even driven by a ‘independent quality body’. It all sounds rather familiar.

Between the coming ‘green paper’ and HEFCE’s open QA consultation, there is an awful lot of policy on the table – all of which all ask more questions than they answer right now. What is clear is that we are heading for a wholesale reshaping of the quality, excellence and regulatory landscape in ways that are completely unpredictable.

As I’ve written before, it would be a shame if this resulted in parallel or competing systems emerging. Given the openness of the landscape, the government and sector now has a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape a completely coherent system. I know ‘systems’ are out of fashion – and the sector has never been strong at coherence, but I’ve said it several times now: let’s not waste this opportunity.

The rising tide

Largely absent from the speech was talk of David Willetts’ market revolution – the ‘rising tide to raise all boats’ which was launched at the start of the last parliament, also at UUK. The theory was that new providers entering the system would drive up standards and quality, and force innovation and efficiency in the system. None of that really took place, apart from the entrance of new providers bit. The sector adapted to what was going on but largely carried on as it was.

The Johnson speech today marks the point of departure from this policy – the tide isn’t going out any time soon (he still welcomes new entrants and competition’s power to improve choice) but the mechanisms to drive change in the sector are now going to come from outcomes-driven metrics and incentives. I.e this minister is not just going to leave it up to mystical market forces to change policy, he’s going to make the policy himself and he wants to see tangible results from it.

Both positions suit the political realities of the time. David Willetts was hamstrung by coalition politics which made policymaking difficult. The Willetts philosophy and the ‘Students at the heart of the system’ reforms, which were never properly completed, always felt like post-hoc rationalisation for the politically driven reforms to fees at the birth of the coalition.

The Conservative Party is now completely in command of Whitehall – moreover it promised a form of TEF in an election manifesto on which they won fair and squarely. A great liberation for proactive ministers with ideas perhaps. But a nightmare for the sector that was just getting used to the go-slow-policy-by-the-backdoor-fudgenomics that we’ve had these past five years.

In this respect, Johnson has more in common with Labour ministers from 1997 to 2010 and their many higher education initiatives. Remember the CETLs? They were also born of a grand ministerial plan rebalance teaching and research. The difference this time is that there’s no money left, so a sharper set of laws, incentives and systems now have be deployed to make real policy change.

Coasting to the top

The speech gave a strong endorsement for GPA over the honours system, but stopped short of calling for its wholesale implementation – instead favouring the dual approach recommended by the Higher Education Academy. This might hold for a time, but it sounds as if Johnson has this marked for further reform, which could well be driven by the TEF and emerging employer’s response to a new system. Anyone that hasn’t yet got a response to problems with degree classifications, or what their institution is going to do about it, will need to have one soon.

Johnson used the word ‘coasting’ to describe students that have benefited from degree inflation and have managed to eek themselves in to top jobs with 2.1s, that he suspects they haven’t fully earned. It’s an interesting use of word and suggests the government might be looking to change student behaviour as much as they want to change institutions – again confirming just how much of the TEF and its associated policy is currently up in the air.

Whatever happened to WP?

Johnson’s speech also announced the re-appointment of Les Ebdon as head of OFFA with a remit to help the government reach its target of “doubling the number of disadvantaged students in HE” from 2012 to 2020. Ebdon and the government will have their work cut out of them to reboot WP policy, and the challenge will be how to do more with less – with the student opportunity fund facing cuts in the next spending review and an overall lack of other current government-led WP initiatives.

Could it mean that the £3,000 difference that OFFA approves between the £6,000 and £9,000 fee will carry further stipulations? Many hope so – and you can absolutely guarantee that will be the case if UUK get their way and fees are allowed to steadily rise with inflation after next year – as they have called for this week. With diminishing regulatory levers, but a proactive policy agenda in motion, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sharpening up of OFFA’s duty in this area as an attractive and achievable direction for the government to take.

The TEF itself might have some interaction with fees and what institutions can charge of course – but for now all of that remains in the don’t know/maybe/wait and see policy firmament. Johnson did say that the TEF will “include incentives that reward institutions who do best at retention and progression of disadvantaged students through their college years”. But this could mean many different things right now.

The speech included another section on value for money which didn’t really have any further policy announcements, apart from the fact he wants to demonstrate greater value for money for students and taxpayers. What is important to watch is the extent the TEF and the new system will be looking to actually drive efficiency and innovation, and how money is linked to it – Fees? Loans? Teaching grant?

Large new chunks of money are not likely to flow to the sector any time soon – the inflationary rise of fees being one of the few ways it could. And by not index-linking fees, HMT kept one final lever over efficiency in HE, having handed the rest over with the fees cash in 2011. If the sector really does get more cash after all this – counter-intuitive as that would be against all other government policy and expectations of other sectors, then it can be sure that strings will be very firmly attached.

So the TEF could prove to be a framework for more than just teaching excellence. But there is much to play for in the coming months. For now we are presented with the Jo Johnson philosophy on HE and it looks like that comes with plenty of action and opportunity for policy. So – strap in!

You can read the full speech here.

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