If the government’s White Paper proposals take up ‘half a bookshelf’, as likened by Nick Hillman last week, then the TEF takes up a good third with a hefty 65 page consultation document published alongside the White Paper and numerous research reports. On the plus side, it seems that the government has heeded some of the sector’s concerns and the prize for institutions that take part looks to be significant with the government valuing it at £1 billion per year. However, whether the TEF will meet its objectives is yet to be seen and, with the level of complexity and detail entailed, you can’t help but wonder whether there is an easier way.
The White Paper refines the Green proposals, going some way to allay the sector’s concerns in relation to scope, speed of implementation, and assessment (specifically the need to recognise context). Any concerns about whether a voluntary scheme would work have also largely been quashed. Inflationary increases will now be linked to the more generous RPI, and institutions that have a positive QA outcome (the majority of established providers) will be guaranteed the full inflationary uplift in the first two years, and a 50 percent uplift in future.
However, with some of the detail dealt with, there are a number of fundamental issues that still weigh heavily on the future success of the TEF.
Will students use it?
This is a real concern, and one that is not specific to higher education – government departments and regulators across all sectors have queried how to get users to be more enquiring when making choices. Findings from BIS’s own research raise a number of doubts about this. Their applicant survey suggests that most students don’t think that there is a problem with information, with just eleven percent saying that information on quality is not transparent and six in ten saying it is. Their qualitative research findings also suggest that, while students think TEF information would be useful, it probably wouldn’t change their choice. There is an answer to this, albeit a partial one – making sure the information sits in league tables, which around 60 per cent of students use. But does the government have the power to dictate this?
Will we see variation in quality?
The whole point of the TEF is to try and identify where the good practice lies and weed out the bad, with the assumption being that there is poor teaching practice in the sector. However, it appears that BIS have already crunched the numbers and aren’t expecting to find hugely shocking findings. They predict a bell-shaped distribution with expectations that 20-30% will receive an Outstanding rating and 50-60% Excellent. This expectation also lies in the labels themselves, with the difference between Excellent and Outstanding indistinguishable to all but an expert eye. It’s also a clear departure from the common, and more user-friendly, ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ used by Ofsted.
Will it deliver quality improvements?
BIS’s intention is that the uplifts will allow those delivering the best quality teaching to continue to invest in this. However, the difference in uplift between those ‘Meeting expectations’ and those who are ‘Excellent’ or ‘Outstanding’ is just 50 percent. This could equate to around £100 per student – is that enough to both incentivise and fund excellence? Perhaps cumulatively. But we will also have to be prepared that those who don’t have the resources to invest in better quality, including many further education colleges who have received a poor overall financial settlement, potentially falling away. The core metrics also don’t include teaching qualifications, which research by the HEA has shown to be important, and there is no plan to incorporate an element of peer review which would genuinely support learning in the system.
Will it recognise diversity?
The opportunity to present contextual evidence to a panel goes some way to resolve this, but will it be enough? Ofsted ratings have suffered from accusations that they favour certain types of provider, and this also applied in HE in the case of Subject Review where the most prestigious universities came out on top. But diversity also relates to discipline. The move to discipline level ratings should help but only if discipline-level panels and experts are introduced. And while there is currently no explicit reference to use of earnings data, the White Paper does say that the TEF will draw on the new LEO dataset in time, with potential risks for arts and humanities subjects if this does come about.
Will it be costly?
Almost certainly. While providers will not bare a cost to apply there will likely be swathes of new staff and TEF teams created at institution-level to support the framework. There will also be the cost of the various different panels, particularly when things move to subject and potentially postgraduate level. And these costs will undoubtedly be passed on to students.
I have sympathy with what the government is trying to achieve. League tables are widely used and academic research shows they are a poor indicator of quality. But reading the detail of the new system does lead one to wonder if there is a simpler way? One of the real risks to the TEF’s success is the continued use of incomparable degree classifications by employers and students, which will drive their inclusion in league tables. HEFCE proposes work to address this as part of the new QA arrangements. If greater comparability could be achieved, even across institutions with similar profiles of students, this could remove the need for a TEF altogether. It would also better protect diversity, by measuring outcomes rather than inputs. And, if it could be achieved by the sector working together to protect standards it would also promote institutional autonomy.
Perhaps this is too simple a proposal, but the opportunity to consider this is here now. If not, there is still a lot more work and convincing to do before we can be confident in the TEF’s success.