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Remember, Remember the TEF of November

Martin McQuillan turns to the TEF - the most developed plan of the government's new plan for higher education - and previews the new way of life for universities which he argues, the sector has brought upon itself.
This article is more than 8 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

The most developed aspect of the Green Paper, published yesterday, is the TEF, and it is the one that will concern academics on the ground the most.

Elsewhere on the site, fellow wonks have done their best to explain how it will work. In short, the TEF will kick off next year with all HEIs who have met the present quality assurance threshold automatically passing what hereafter will be known as TEF Level 1. Given the timescale involved and the famously glacial speed of BIS, any attempt to have a fully operational TEF in place for the spring has been abandoned.

The best that one can say about it is that it is certainly an ambitious scheme from a minister determined to complete the work of his predecessor. It also introduces a wonderful new political mythology that has a familiar ring, that of ‘hard working students’ and ‘coasters’. However, it is also completely teffing mad.

At the Conservative Party conference in October, Jo Johnson spoke at a National Union of Students and Conservative Home fringe event. Then he made it quite clear what the purpose of the TEF was, ‘to accelerate market shift’ in HE provision and to encourage ‘market exit’ in areas where some providers are uncompetitive. In other words, taken along side changes in regulation for new providers, it is, after the ad hoc fixes of the last parliament such as ‘margincore’, yet another attempt to engineer a market where one stubbornly refuses to grow.

There is a remarkable contradiction in all of this. The government is proposing a substantial apparatus of scrutiny, surveillance, intervention and interpolation, which will occupy untold hours of academic staff time.  It involves delegating new powers to the minister and to BIS and creating a new regulatory landscape that will take years to bed in. In total it represents a very substantial incursion of the state into universities, even if the paper insists that the TEF will be administered at arms length from government. In the name of creating a dynamic market the green paper proposes to build a glorious state bureaucracy.

The justification for the TEF, repeated through out the green paper, is that in contrast to research, teaching has in recent times been undervalued in universities. The only problem with this statement is that it is simply not true. There is no evidence provided to support this claim, beyond impression and anecdote.

Rather, one could and should assert that the best researchers are also the best teachers, their research informing their pedagogy, with students experiencing education at the forefront of disciplinary enquiry. The worst teaching happens in a culture that does not value research or expect anything more from academics than pandering to undergraduate expectations derived from their time at school. The best and most productive academics are able to strike a balance between teaching and research, while managing to keep their head above water when deluged with institutional administration.

I have no particular evidence base to support this assertion, other than my own experience of working for twenty years in universities.  However, since the minister does not provide evidence to support his own claims, I do not necessarily feel obliged to provide any of my own, beyond noting that if university teaching is so poor why do 126 HEIs all fall within a band of 10 points (90-80) for overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey?

Other justifications are given for the TEF. It is in part designed to arrest grade inflation and to give teeth to consumer law in universities. However, it is also hoped that it will help rebalance the UK economy by producing more productive and ‘career ready’ graduates.  Equally, it is desired that it will solve the problems of social mobility and widening participation amongst under-represented and disadvantaged groups, as well as addressing the attainment gap for those in university.

If a TEF assessment will actually do these things then it will be a truly miraculous activity. These are complex social, cultural and economic phenomena which people inside and outside of universities spend a lot of time worrying about. No one has yet suggested that any of these issues can be solved through the creation an over-weaning bureaucracy for the audit of university teaching. In this sense the TEF is the disingenuous in search of the nebulous.

One might conclude that these lofty ambitions for the TEF and the unsubstantiated claims of ‘lamentable’ teaching in universities are not the real reasons for its introduction. Rather, the TEF surely exists for the purpose of producing a contrived mechanism that circumvents the politically controversial issue of raising the cap on tuition fees. It will allow all providers to index-link fees in the first instance, and thereafter to create a menu of differentiated fees across the sector.  This might have the appearance of a market to the casual observer but markets are not driven by an inspection framework run by central government. There is considerably more regulation here than you will find on any trading floor of the city of London. This is not a market; it is Dianetics for universities.

The Green Paper proposes to solve the problem of raising tuition fees through a potentially tricky vote of democratically elected MPs by handing those powers over to TEF administrators (i.e. the sector approving its own pay rise) and by giving the minister new powers to raise the fees cap without recourse to parliament. It is also thought, perhaps more hopefully, that by encouraging greater attention to graduate employability, the TEF will help address problems of the non-repayment of student loans. The TEF certainly has its ideological work cut out for it.

However, challenging as all this might be for universities, and especially front-line academics who will have to deliver on managerial ambitions in this arena, it should be noted that the sector has brought the TEF upon itself. For too long university leaders have failed to appreciate the implications of the supply-side reform of higher education that they willingly embraced as the price to be paid for additional fees income.

During this time they did not make the case for the value of higher education as a societal good, the principles and standards of which were beyond the profit motive of private equity colleges. They did not pay attention to the needs of the students and young graduates they had happily plunged into existentially threatening levels of debt.

They did not vigorously attend to problems of widening participation, and were complacent about transparency around how tuition fees are spent. They shrugged their shoulders and said that graduate employability was not their problem.  At the same time they requested, without showing their working, an increase in the fees cap, crying penury from the newly built master’s lodge while others were subject to withering austerity. All of this has now come home to roost in the apparatus of the TEF and universities will be made to attend to these issues if they want to see an additional penny of tax-payer-underwritten funds. Vice chancellors can no longer take the money and run.

Will the TEF result in better teaching in English universities? One can hope so but the chances are slim. The exercise relies upon a set of metrics that is already in wide use and has failed to address the allegedly ‘lamentable’ teaching on offer at present. Rather, the TEF will create a new game to be played, well or badly, by university managers. Canny vice chancellors will learn from the mistakes of others, universities will be tempted to close provision in certain subjects in order to increase their TEF level status, the curriculum will homogenise around what is known to work well in the TEF, and TEF experts and consultants will pop up all over the place. Gaming the TEF will become the new way to increase revenues in a university and we will have learned nothing from the worst aspects of the REF.

The green paper outlines a consultation and implementation programme that will occupy universities for the rest of this parliament. Unless the sector or her majesty’s loyal opposition have an alternative plan, the TEF will dominate higher education for years to come.

One day in the future, while filling out their submission for Level 4 status TEF managers will be heard to sing:

Remember, remember the TEF of November,

Green paper, OfStud, the lot,

I see no reason,

why green paper season,

Should ever be forgot

3 responses to “Remember, Remember the TEF of November

  1. This document and its proposals smack of the way in which the NHS now works – or perhaps I should does not work. Huge amounts of pointless paper pushing, CQC, Monitor, questionably irrelevant targets, driven by sociopolitical desires rather than any clinical need.

    The NHS wastes vast amounts of tax payers resources with the mountain of bureaucracy and just about nothing works

  2. One of the best blogs i have read so far on the TEF. Although there is always rooms for improving teaching – and god teachers do that anyway – the TEF uses this powerful weapon for other motives. It is remarkable how little we have learnt of the tactics used so far to make us believe that our state education or health system are doing poorly. First you create metrics which are hard to achieve, then you show that the system needs reforms, then you move the goalpost, then you have further evidence that external help is needed and before you know it, it’s privatised. And being private is not the problem. it is the system under which the privatisation occurs that is detrimental to the very excellence it claimed to seek.

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