The English higher education sector has been waiting a long time to find out where the chips would fall on regulating quality and teaching excellence. And if you’re new to the conversation or haven’t been tuning in on a regular basis it’s probably a bit like trying to pick up the thread of Game of Thrones at Season 8 – and then wondering why everyone else is so obsessed with it.
Arguably there’s no time in living memory when policymakers haven’t wondered whether universities are teaching the right things to the right people, but let’s focus attention on what happens when you worry about it at a time of major public spending constraint.
The noughties and New Labour
Before the financial crisis of 2009-10 the standard policy lever for improving university teaching was injection of public money to fund national and local enhancement architecture. Artefacts of the noughties settlement, rooted in the Dearing review of 1997, include the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF), the creation of the Higher Education Academy (subsequently absorbed into Advance HE), and the Centres of Excellence for Teaching and Learning (CETLs). Millions rolled into the sector, all earmarked for improving teaching.
Quality assessment arrangements had settled on a regular institutional review every six years grounded in peer review, but coordinated by the QAA, and with a much more detailed UK Quality Code as reference point. But lest you start to consider this a halcyon era, recall that the noughties was also the era in which university league tables rose to prominence, especially once the NSS was up and running mid-decade – the classic New Labour public service reform pairing of funding and public accountability.
And it’s not as if there was a settled view about the best way to assess quality – the decade was marked by what came to be known as the “quality wars” – ably recounted by DK elsewhere on the site – in which some characterised the QAA review system as too intrusive, and other not intrusive enough.
In 2009 the debate was still running hot enough that the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee recommended in its report on students and universities that future QAA reviews should more robustly assess and report on teaching quality and enhancement, and moreover, that finding a basis for the comparability of a degree awarded by one institution to one awarded by another in terms of the standard expected was almost impossible. This, the committee felt, was a problem.
Coalition government, austerity and the market
When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government came to power in 2010, post financial crisis, applying austerity measures to public finances became the name of the game. David Willetts, the conservative universities minister inherited the findings of the independent Browne review of higher education funding and student finance which just happened (entirely by coincidence one presumes) to mark a significant pivot to a different way of thinking about quality improvement – one much more in line with a Conservative analysis of how the world works.
HEIs actively compete for well informed, discerning students, on the basis of price and teaching quality, improving provision across the whole sector, within a framework that guarantees minimum standards. Our proposals are designed to create genuine competition for students between HEIs, of a kind which cannot take place under the current system. There will be more investment available for the HEIs that are able to convince students that it is worthwhile. This is in our view a surer way to drive up quality than any attempt at central planning.
The Browne review recommended that universities be allowed to increase undergraduate tuition fees on a sliding scale, and that “popular” universities be permitted to expand – in the era of student number controls, this was impossible.
Willetts accepted these recommendations and the Coalition government set the full-time undergraduate fee threshold at £9,000, while over time student number controls were first relaxed, then removed altogether. For the first time, students studying at private or new providers of HE would be given access to student loans, in theory ratcheting up competition still further by offering still more choice.
Now, we’re getting pretty far from teaching quality here, but it’s worth remembering just how much Browne – and the 2011 HE white paper (single-handedly responsible for the outright Wonkhe ban on use of the metaphor of things being at the heart of other things) – tied up the two issues of fees and quality together – grounded in the idea that competition between institutions would enhance quality.
It’s notable that “low quality” was not posited as a problem – the problem was how to ensure continuous quality improvement and allow more students to enjoy the kind of quality they wanted to experience. It solved an immediate problem – reducing the direct cost of funding higher education to the public purse while avoiding depriving universities of the funds they needed – and turbo-charged the student consumer architecture of public information about higher education.
“Value for money” showed up infrequently in the 2011 white paper, and was not consistently defined. It pops up in relation to universities finding spending efficiencies, in relation to public funding, and in relation to the quality of teaching, the latter located very much in the eyes of the student-consumer than in any single dataset.
But one of the ambitions of that white paper was to create a new longitudinal dataset, sowing the technocratic seeds of student outcomes measures:
The greatest potential value for users comes in linking different datasets and tracking typical students through their journey from school, through higher education, into a career. We are developing a longitudinal data-set of this nature, involving the Information Commissioner and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that individuals’ personal data cannot be identified or used inappropriately, in line with the Data Protection Act.
The Johnson era (no, the other one)
Before he was appointed universities minister, Jo Johnson held the pen on the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election that gave the Conservatives an unexpected parliamentary majority. The next thing that happened, of course, was Brexit, but that was still some years off, and there was plenty to think about on HE teaching and quality before then.
The manifesto had things to say about teaching quality, and value for money:
We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses; and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates.
But the real pivot came with the new minister’s maiden speech to UUK conference in September of 2015. As Mark Leach observed on Wonkhe in his commentary on the minister’s speech to vice chancellors, Johnson broke what until then had been the first rule of ministerial speeches on universities – you never accept that the sector is anything other than “world-leading”, or at worst, “can go further”.
Johnson went further, claiming:
Speaking to parents and students since taking on this job has confirmed for me the extent to which teaching is highly variable across higher education…There are inspiring academics who go the extra mile…But there are also institutions and individual academics that take a different approach; that have struck what academics David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper describe as a ‘disengagement contract’ with their students.
Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system…This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system.
Now, while we can see the value debate seeded in the 2011 white paper putting down roots, and unfurling its leaves, it’s also worth noting that Johnson’s target is clearly research-intensive institutions here rather than recruiting institutions – possibly one of the reasons this speech went down so very poorly with its audience.
Johnson was, arguably, setting out to solve the classic middle class dinner party problem in which parents of students swap scandalised stories of low contact hours and unanswered student emails – but with no way of telling whether these anecdotes represent a systemic issue or one-off blips in a very large and complex system. But the general problem of imbalance between teaching and research attention and prestige was well established by then – so deep in the bowels of Whitehall, work began on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
HERA and TEF
Johnson, of course, stewarded the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) through parliament, which replaced the funding council with the Office for Students. The creation of the new regulator dealt with a bit of unfinished business from the Willetts settlement creating a register of HE providers which would include both the established sector and new/independent providers, and made provision for them to be regulated without the need for the regulator’s disbursal of public funding to provide the rationale for it.
HERA established the Designated Quality Body – which remained QAA, so no real change there – and the bill debates saw a lot of discussion about the merits of the TEF, leading to the inclusion of an amendment that required the government to commission an independent review of any mechanism that might be set up to apply “ratings” to providers on their quality and standards (ie the TEF). But generally speaking the bill itself didn’t have much to say about boosting teaching quality, save that it made “promoting value for money in the provision of higher education” one of the general duties of the new regulator.
The original conception of the TEF was detailed in an earlier green paper of 2015, which set out the rationale for the exercise. The case for the TEF focused primarily on the need for better information for students and employers of graduates – though the green paper did flag concerns about value for money in HE, referencing both the HEPI/HEA student academic experience survey which by then had been splashing on students’ less than flattering views on value for money since the 2012 undergraduate fee increase, and a report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters that employers were struggling to fill graduate vacancies because of a lack of skills.
A subsequent technical consultation established the specific mixture of the metrics that would be used – based on readily-available public data measures but split by student demographic and benchmarked in light of student population to allow for widening participation – and qualitative submissions from institutions themselves explaining why some of their metrics on things like non-continuation or graduate employment might look a little iffy.
Much ink was spilled on the assessment processes, benchmarking of metrics and the merits or otherwise of assessing teaching in this way – and you can follow the debate via the TEF tag on Wonkhe if you are so inclined – but in the end there was a proper run of the TEF and universities duly got their Gold, Silver, and Bronze awards in 2017. Champagne corks popped as appropriate and everyone got back to worrying about EU student numbers.
LEO, jobs, and ONS
In the meantime though, the HE value debate had acquired teeth. Remember that longitudinal dataset flagged as being valuable in the 2011 white paper? That passing curiosity evolved into the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset, which looks at graduate salaries three, five, and ten years after graduation.
In 2016 the Institute for Fiscal Studies sliced that data by gender, socio economic group, subject, and institution, and showed the significant variation on those returns – thus ensuring that nobody could ever airily cite an average graduate salary return as evidence of the general value of HE again.
And all the sophisticated arguments in the world about the limitations of the data, confounding variables, and the imperfect alignment between course content and pedagogy and graduate employment outcome couldn’t remake what had always been considered a straightforward association between university and improved life chances.
It didn’t help that for the generation who graduated in the wake of the global financial crisis, the noughteens were generally leaner years for graduate jobs. Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of the Labour Force Survey found a marked increase between 2008 and 2017 in the proportion of recent graduates and those who had graduated more than five years earlier working in “non-graduate jobs” – ie those not officially requiring higher education qualifications.
And while there’s lots of caveats to apply to these statistics, and projections for future skills needs continued to emphasise high-level/graduate skills, worry increased that the labour market simply couldn’t absorb graduates at the rate that universities were producing them. Another assumption that had appeared iron-clad – that increasing the numbers of graduates would increase the overall size and productivity of the economy – looked shaky.
In 2018 things got even worse when the Office for National Statistics announced it was reviewing how student loans are recorded in the national accounts – deciding the same year that henceforth more of the public money issued as student loans should be represented as public expenditure rather than asset, because in practice a wedge of it would never actually be repaid.
And while this had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with teaching quality, it made what had been a theoretical value for money for students problem, into one that directly hit the public finances. Treasury eyebrows were raised, and that’s never a good place to be.
That ONS decision shifted the incentives for government. Where before, despite there being intensification of the policy agenda towards incentivising teaching excellence across the board, the mainstream policy consensus had been that increasing access to higher education was always a good thing. Now, students, or courses, that weren’t likely to produce significant future repayments looked more like a financial burden for the state than something to celebrate.
The politics of HE value
Westminster politics was also changing by then to the post-Brexit landscape we know and don’t much love today. It was the Labour party under Ed Milliband’s leadership that had started to talk about the fate of “the other 50 per cent” – recognising that for the half of the population that doesn’t attend university, education and job opportunities tend to be much less appealing, or non-existent.
This concern percolated over to some parts of the Conservative Party too, in part because the shock of the Brexit referendum outcome focused attention on Leave voters who, though not exclusively, tended to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and have lower educational attainment than Remain voters. In particular then-Prime Minister Theresa May was keen to make life easier for those “just about managing”.
An influential 2017 book by David Goodhart, wonk at the right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank captured the zeitgeist. The Road to Somewhere (read the review on Wonkhe here) suggested that the UK was splitting less along traditional political lines and more along social identity and corresponding values, coining the terms “somewheres” and “anywheres” to capture the difference.
Goodhart positioned graduates firmly in the “anywhere” camp: less rooted to a place, more open to change, valuing autonomy over tradition – and over-represented among decision-makers and professional elites, causing resentment among those “somewheres” who were characterised as more grounded in a locality, anxious about social change, with lower education levels, and fewer prospects for status generally. And to win general elections, it was concluded, political parties would have to appeal to this newly identified group of disaffected “somewhere” voters, and represent their concerns in mainstream politics.
This strand of thinking that integrated a questioning of the value of HE to some looked suspiciously like a reheat of a tradition in parts of the Conservative party and among some Conservative voters that set itself against the idea of widening participation in higher education on the principle that “more means worse.” This idea had tended to manifest in a critique of the sort of universities and subjects that didn’t look very much like the idea of a university that the interlocutor was most comfortable with. Those on the other side of the argument have characterised this position as being grounded in elitist prejudice and middle-class status protectionism.
But now there seemed to be a close alignment between small-c conservative scepticism about the merits of HE expansion, social justice concerns (about those who were investing in HE only to not see returns in job or salary terms), and economic pragmatism. It’s not especially surprising, then, that the idea of “quality” – for so long grounded in specific student learning experiences and standards of achievement – became much more about students achieving defined graduate outcomes, and absolute rather than benchmarked ones at that.
To the present moment
Still, while Johnson had flirted with the idea of including LEO data in future iterations of TEF, ultimately ministers retreated from the idea that graduate salary is an appropriate measure of student outcomes for specific subjects, courses, or institutions, pivoting back to continuation, progression, and crucially, graduate-level employment.
In a speech to Universities UK annual conference in 2021 then Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson said:
There have been too many instances where pockets of low quality have undermined the teaching or value for money that students and taxpayers rightly expect…[A]t 25 higher education institutions, fewer than half the students who begin a degree will go on to graduate employment or further study. As I have said before, this is simply unacceptable.This represents a shocking waste of potential as well as a heart-breaking failure in someone’s hopes and dreams. The Office for Students have a key role to play in raising quality and standards. They will take action where quality is low. And I am clear that, in the future, students recruited on to such courses should not be able to be counted against a university’s access targets for access.
And marking the release of the new proposals on student outcomes and quality last week universities minister Michelle Donelan was quoted in the Telegraph:
Universities try to entice pupils to the front door and say that’s social mobility. Actually, that doesn’t help anybody. They then drop out after a term or a year. All they have then is debt and the stigma of having dropped out. Actually, what real social mobility is is getting them to fully complete that course and ensuring that they then get some graduate job. I use the term ‘Mickey Mouse’ because some of these courses are Mickey Mouse in essence. People from my kind of background, they just see a course. They’ve not got those advisers telling them this course is far superior to that one, and they can just end up doing a course hoping it’s going to lead them somewhere, and it doesn’t.
In other words, it is a problem if an institution recruits too many students, especially if those students do not bring with them significant social capital, who subsequently do not complete their course or go on to do something worthwhile – a statement that not even the most passionate advocates of education for its own sake could reasonably disagree with. Most people, in reality, do not have the luxury of pursuing education purely for its own sake, though I do believe that many every day reap the benefits of their degree in small, non-economic, and profoundly meaningful ways.
After all, as Mary Curnock Cook observed on our podcast when the new proposals on outcomes were published, OfS has not said that 100 per cent of students should achieve graduate level employment or the equivalent – there is still space in the metrics for people to raise children, take career breaks, wait tables while pursuing their creative passion, take a pay cut to invest in their future business, volunteer, and do all the other things that make life rich and interesting, while still recognising that if the numbers are seriously skewed in the other direction, something has gone wrong somewhere.
To Williamson’s credit, he refined not at all on university type – as a University of Bradford graduate himself he understood the value of institutional diversity. And while Secretary of State he introduced skills reforms intended to open up opportunities beyond the traditional HE route. And skills reform is genuinely needed – albeit there is a lingering tension between an agenda that is about further expanding higher education opportunity through offering greater diversity of route, course, and provider, and one that is about reshuffling the sort of provision that is available for those who already go so that the overall cost of the system is driven down.
But even if you take the policy intention in good faith, the public narrative about value, quality, and higher education has indeed been toxic in recent years, with the supposed pockets of poor quality taking up air time arguably hugely disproportionate to the scale of the problem. And this has been actively fuelled by government ministers in what has appeared at times to be rather cynical ways (did Donelan really need to re-invoke the classic “Mickey Mouse courses” narrative to get her point across in that Telegraph article?)
So, perhaps, the new threshold measures for quality of student outcomes and the revised TEF – which looks at outcomes but also balances these with space for student experience, institutional data and qualitative evidence – might actually be a good thing for the sector, allowing the dust to settle a bit and better narratives of quality and teaching excellence to emerge. That’s certainly the hope behind Universities UK’s new framework for programme reviews which among other things, seeks to reassure the public that universities have this value thing well in hand.
There’s much more to the story – we’ve not even mentioned the appointment of Michael Barber as the inaugural chair of the new Office for Students, whose “deliverology” ethos when working in government focused closely on the production of metrics as the key to driving action. We’ve not dived into the weeds on how the TEF has evolved, or the “B3 Bear” saga on how student outcomes quietly wove their way into regulation – because in some ways this isn’t really a story about metrics, or pedagogy – or even quality, really.
It’s about how universities – and who studies in them, and what they learn – began to act as lightning rods for wider public concerns about the state of the economy, social inequality, and quality of life, especially in a time of post-financial crash political turbulence.
The definition of university quality and teaching excellence has adapted to the politics and public concerns of the time. It will do so again – I am personally curious about how, or whether, current thinking on the importance of community, inclusion, belonging, and mental health and wellbeing will percolate into the collective conception, and regulation, of quality.
That’s not to say that the decisions OfS makes about its regulation don’t have real consequences for universities and students or that it’s not fun to pore over the twists and turns as they happen. Indeed, these details should be robustly debated because as we have seen, while there might be a strand of thinking that dominates in politics, it’s rarely a total consensus and new information – and new politics – can come out of the woodwork at any time and change the picture.
But it is worth remembering that these details have a wider resonance for the public and policymakers, and have meanings beyond what teaching staff do in classrooms and labs and how students spend their time and develop themselves while at university. Some of those meanings may appear perverse, or wrong headed. But it would be a serious strategic mistake to ignore them or fail to acknowledge their power.
If you found this article helpful in making sense of the policy landscape, you’ll really enjoy our upcoming event Making sense of higher education on 14 February in London. And if it sparked an interest in quality why not join us on 15 February at The Secret Life of Students to quiz OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge on the future of quality regulation? Find out more and book your tickets here.