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TEF, REF and lessons from history

Looking back to the origins of the REF, Tom Bailey ponders the coming TEF and asks whether what may start out as a light-touch regime could one day follow the history of the REF and the gain complexity and burden for which its cousin in measuring research excellence is often criticised for.
This article is more than 8 years old

Tom is a Strategic Manager at Imperial College London

Plans for implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework are now being hastily cobbled together. As the TEF draws on the REF language and promises financial incentives to raise the profile of teaching as the REF offers for research, it is worth reflecting on how research selectivity was introduced in the UK and what lessons can be drawn from that experience.

The politics and practicalities of that shift in the 1980s suggest the government faces a rocky road ahead to produce a framework which both meets its aims and is supported across the sector.

Introduced back in 1986, the research assessment exercise (RAE) was the original predecessor of the REF. The Conservatives oversaw deep cuts to higher education in 1981, cuts of the scale that Julian Gravatt characterised on this site as “unthinkable” for the current higher education landscape. Inevitably, university research was hard hit and certain technological universities suffered especially savage settlements, like Salford which lost 44% of its income. MPs were furious at the University Grants Committee (UGC) (the predecessor of both HEFCE and the short-lived Universities Funding Council) for how it allocated the cuts while the Treasury came to view the block grant funding for universities as a ‘black hole’. A consensus in Westminster existed that the system did not protect research. In 1981, the Department for Education and Science assessor told the UGC annual conference that:

“Science was a priority with ministers, but they were conscious of the problem of ensuring that funds secured for science, from an envelope of fixed size, were used to that end. Direct mechanisms for achieving this through UGC recurrent grant were not obvious, and perhaps not desirable, but the question could not be avoided.”

In fact, the government undoubtedly decided such mechanisms to distribute funding to research were both desirable and necessary. Support also grew for research selectivity amongst the Research Councils, the Royal Society and vice chancellors. It was in this context of consensus among the sector’s elites that Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, a former Cambridge VC, and the newly-appointed head of the UGC in October 1983, created the RAE.

By contrast, the introduction of the TEF will likely be more contentious within the sector. Jo Johnson said in his speech at Universities UK that he wanted:

“to work with you all, as well as with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Quality Assurance Agency, to design a framework that has widespread support and works for the sector, as well as students and employers and taxpayers.”

However, the RAE was introduced into a far smaller, less diverse sector. While the appeal of higher fees might be welcomed by institutions, there will be no consensus over how teaching quality should be assessed. The divides are likely to be much more bitter as universities reflect nervously on how they compare to the sector on existing metrics such as NSS scores, employment data, grades, qualified teacher numbers and so on. Johnson’s hope of a framework with widespread support is optimistic in the face of sectional interests which will have very different ideas about which metrics the TEF should use (and how they should be weighted) to assess teaching excellence.

Although the politics of the TEF might be more difficult, many of the problems are familiar. In particular, questions around metrics were raised after the RAE was introduced. The RAE represented a major shift from the government giving grants to support research to instead making payments for services rendered. Consequently, research funding allocation in effect formed a managed market combining quasi-market mechanisms and new accountability measures. As this market lacked price-based competition, metrics were explored as a means for the state (the consumer) to assess whether it was getting good value for money from its investment.

These metrics were problematic; the UGC group tasked with considering metrics reported in 1985 that “the derivation of acceptable performance indicators for research represents an almost intractable problem”. The use of performance indicators was later criticised in 1991 by Swinnerton-Dyer himself, who attacked an increasing “emphasis on performance indicators in their most naïve form”.

Whatever the government’s intentions, the difficulties of assessing quality will inevitably lead to the TEF becoming more onerous in the future, just as happened with the RAE. Jo Johnson said in his speech at Universities UK on 1st July that he had “no intention of replicating the individual and institutional burdens of the REF” and that the TEF would be “proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic”. However, no politician ever set out to create a bureaucratic research selectivity exercise. Instead, research selectivity has ratcheted up its complexity with every repetition of the process after previous versions had been criticised for being a partial judgement on the quality of research.

The most recent consequence of this ratcheting up was REF 2014, which cost around £250m according to HEFCE. TEF may well start out as a light touch exercise rushed through on a short timeline, but the pressure for it to become more comprehensive, and so more bureaucratic, will grow when TEF’s assessments come under scrutiny or challenge from the sector. Added to this will be the normal challenges faced by policymakers trying to make use of metrics, hoping to create a system of accountability that does not punish honesty or reward the appearance of, rather than necessarily the reality of, achievement.

Despite clearly different origins, the RAE and the TEF are similar in terms of constituting a shift towards a mixed market, with a combination of market mechanisms and state bureaucracy. Research selectivity was the response to the shortcomings of a system which adequately distributed gradual increases in overall funding but which had lost credibility by the early 1980s following deep cuts. The introduction of the RAE was a large shift from a laissez-faire approach to the allocation of public spending for research in an era of trust, to one in which the state took greater oversight, creating a quasi-market with all of the distinctly non-market features of accountability and bureaucracy which that entails.

By contrast, the TEF is essentially another roll of the dice of marketisation, an attempt to finally create a functioning market in undergraduate tuition. It follows the failure of the last attempts at marketisation of higher education to deliver what was hoped for. For example, there is no real fee differentiation across the sector as most institutions charge £9,000 for at least some of their courses.

TEF will allow certain institutions to charge higher fees, resulting in what superficially looks more like a market with differentiated provision by fee levels. Beneath the surface though, higher education is set to be subjected to more state interference and bureaucracy as part of yet another attempt to create a market as the TEF is set to allow institutions to link fee increases to inflation. At present, with inflation at 0% and hardly projected to soar in coming years, will the TEF actually reward and incentivise good quality teaching, or just provide another drain on the resources academics need?

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