The Green Paper seeks to re-model the forms and methods of accountability between universities and government using a Teaching Excellence Framework – and despite using familiar metrics, the TEF for the first time contains a formal method to drive that accountability: a direct link to fee income and future reputation of every individual university.
Much of the commentary from within the sector has focused on the problems with the notion of teaching excellence. Professor Stefan Collini, writing in the London Review of Books, contributed an elegant, if somewhat predictable, deconstruction of the TEF, indeed the whole Green Paper, as another manifestation of neo-liberal ideology applied to higher education. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. Either way, HE cannot simply object on ideological grounds given the government’s mandate to pursue its electoral programme, not least because the TEF was explicitly mentioned in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto.
Graham Gibbs, in a compelling chapter in HEPI’s response to the Green Paper, pointed out the depth of the practical flaws in all of the metrics so far suggested to measure teaching excellence.
On these accounts, the metrics are either insidious or inadequate. Neither Collini nor Gibbs articulates an approach that would enable teaching excellence to be measured robustly and consistently across universities. To be fair to them, nor has anybody else; not HEFCE, not QAA, not HEA. Perhaps it is just not possible. If not, it is unrealistic for the sector to carry on repeating the acknowledged weaknesses of the proxies proposed by civil servants and politicians if we cannot formulate superior alternatives. Indeed, most universities have collaborated for years with league tables which use versions of these very proxies to rate teaching.
Furthermore, these measures have shaped behaviour. It would be hard to deny that the significant influence of NSS scores on standings in these league tables has helped garner sustained institutional attention on issues that matter to students. In other words, the form of the NSS and its method of use in league tables have served to change our conversations.
Given the widespread concerns about the proposed metrics, it is perhaps unsurprising that the direct link between the TEF flexibility in undergraduate fees has been unpopular in the sector. However, if the reservations about the purpose being insidious and the proxies being inadequate do not seem to merit this opposition, then do we really possess a compelling case against this link?
It is true that the proposals in the Green Paper – proposals that will have a medium-term financial impact on universities through access to increased undergraduate fees and perhaps even greater long-term financial impact through reputational effects – will accelerate processes of change within universities. This is presumably the point for the government. Emphasising widening access, selecting these metrics, and connecting TEF and fee flexibility will prompt, if pursued rigorously, ever more serious consideration within universities of the ways in which young people from poorer backgrounds get in, are supported in staying, and get decent jobs when they leave. These are just the conversations that we ought to be having in universities more often and with greater results.
The nervousness might stem from resentment about such direct external interference in our internal affairs. Gordon McKenzie, is his recent Wonkhe piece, argues that the “TEF and the link to inflationary and sub-inflationary levels of fee increase looks remarkably like an efficiency and performance framework for universities”. As he implies, the Treasury is hardly going to continue to hand over large amounts of public money to the SLC each year without some line of sight on these issues. In any negotiation, you rarely get something for nothing. Adoption of the TEF for increased fees may in these circumstances be a reasonable trade-off. In the current context, what would a politically acceptable alternative look like?
Perhaps the most persuasive argument of those opposing any link is that it will undermine further the relationship between students and universities, in particular if demonstration of excellence in teaching creates increases in fees which are borne by students. The position of NUS – excellence in teaching should be delivered by every university regardless of the prospect of increased financial reward – is entirely understandable. Students might also judge, though, that the amount of any increase for their successors will be small and the cumulative income for universities will enable them to maintain the high standards that the TEF has confirmed.
While it is right to draw attention to the paradox of the feedback of today’s students contributing to higher costs for tomorrow’s students, it is probably fanciful to argue that this will influence how the vast majority of them respond to the survey. After all, I have seen no evidence to date that suggests students accentuate the positive despite the potential for such behaviour to move their universities up league tables and thus enhance the perceived value of their degrees.
It is true there are no guarantees that any future metrics which might be proposed for the TEF will not promote or reward behaviours that most of us would view as undesirable. This is a potential problem and one which the recent letter from BIS to HEFCE – with its request that the latter look at contact hours and contract types – did nothing to assuage. Of course, we can debate and if necessary push back on such metrics as and when they arise; overall, the message to the government must be to focus on outcomes, not inputs.
Maybe the opposition to the fee link is prompted by concern that the TEF will be gerrymandered by politicians or civil servants either to favour or protect certain interests in the sector. There may be historical precedents that can be cited here. I see no evidence for this in the present case; in particular, the Minister’s public commitment to using contextual data within the initial metrics gives considerable reassurance.
Then there are the worries expressed about the connection of TEF to fees creating winners and losers. In this regard, it is pertinent to reflect that for two decades or so the sector has collaborated with a process which judges quality at an individual, discipline, and institutional level through a combination of peer review and proxy measures. The outcome has significant implications for both the income and the reputation of UK universities. Over time, the contrast in fortunes between those institutions that do well and those that do less well has widened. In its most recent incarnation, it was called the Research Excellence Framework.
It would appear, therefore, that UK HE does not have a problem with mechanisms that differentiate between universities. Maybe some of the reluctance about the TEF stems from the fear that over time it may serve to change one further conversation in the sector, the one that defines ‘top’ universities mostly by the breadth and depth of their research.