Politics and the TEF

Prior to the general election, I wrote a blog post reviewing the various parties’ views on HE. Following the conservative majority I wrote another piece which concluded with “What is still not clear is how universities might be regulated, how quality mechanisms will operate in future, and how the regulatory and quality regime will be changed to encompass the more diverse range of providers”

Following the various party conferences we now enter a period when we await, with bated breath, the green paper on higher education. For an insight into the Conservative conference, then I recommend “Welcome to the Northern Powerhouse of Cards” by Martin McQuillan of Kingston University

There’s little point in looking at the other parties right now – there is not likely to be an election till 2020, and Labour haven’t identified their position on fees, let alone how they will carry out the role of opposition to the green paper.

The Conservatives are in an interesting situation. Cameron as leader, who has acted as a CEO has already indicated his intention to step down. Hence for everyone else it “eyes on the prize”. As deputy CEO, Osborne has been calling the shots on HE policy, since the Treasury is dictating policy more clearly than any other department. May is setting out her stall, and showing clear opposition to overseas students which will win her no friends in universities. Boris is harrumphing around the margins, and looking more widely Hunt is exerting everyone to work harder.Meanwhile, Javid is happy to drive through large cuts at BIS, and we can expect that many of the organisations that currently work in the HE sector may cease to exist.

It’s into this environment, with his boss supporting 40% cuts to BIS, that Johnson will need to produce  a green paper and ultimately drive legislation through parliament

All of a sudden,this looks threatening to HEFCE. The HEFCE consultation on QA is in tune with government and seems to promote a move to a deregulatory ideology and imply the demise of QAA. More recently though, with questions being asked about whether the remaining amounts of funding could be administered from elsewhere, and the need for a body to run TEF, then HEFCE themselves look more vulnerable.

The Teaching Excellence Framework will clearly be a big part of the green paper. It was a commitment from Osborne (that Treasury driver again) and is detailed in the government’s productivity plan “Fixing the foundations:Creating a more prosperous nation”

Excellence in teaching
4.7 The government will introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework to sharpen incentives for institutions to provide excellent teaching, as currently exist for research. This will improve the value for money and return on investment for both students and the government, and will contribute to aligning graduate skills and expectations with the needs of employers. The government will consult later this year on how a Teaching Excellence Framework can be developed, including outcome-focussed criteria and metrics. The Teaching Excellence Framework will inform student decision-making, continue to support a high average wage premium for graduates and ensure that students’ hard-won qualifications keep their value over time.
4.8 To support teaching excellence, the government will allow institutions offering high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, and will consult on the mechanisms to do this. This will reward excellent institutions with higher fee income, while ensuring students get good value from the tuition loans that the government underwrites.

Johnson now needs to steer this through parliament, at the same time as BIS is facing large cuts, and he needs to produce something that will work, both as a fix in the short term, and as a longer term evaluation of teaching.

To be able to have variable fees from 2017-18 will mean measures in place during the current academic year. Inevitably this will be based on existing measures – NSS, Hesa returns, DLHE initially.

Longer term though, then a new set of measures will come in which will provide challenges to the sector, and to individual institutions. From the Times Higher Johnson has made it clear how he would like the metrics to be set up:

Widening participation and access will be intimately linked to the TEF. One of the core metrics we envisage using in the TEF will be the progress and the value add [for] students from disadvantaged backgrounds, measuring it for example in terms of their retention and completion rates. And their [universities’] success in moving students on to either further study or graduate work.

On having an impact on further marketisation, then Johnson says:

the system should “not only have the capacity for more rapid market entry, but we [should] have the capacity for more rapid market share shifts between universities than we have hitherto seen in the sector”.

and  that

he wanted a system where “market share can shift towards where teaching quality really resides. Our teaching excellence framework will be an important signal to students of where quality resides, discipline by discipline, institution by institution.”

He’s asking an awful lot from a set of metrics that are not yet defined, and that will have numerous questions raised by many in the sector.

In the meantime, what can individuals and institutions do?

Firstly there is the opportunity to respond to the government’s inquiry into assessing the quality of HE, which asks specific questions such as:

  • .What should be the objectives of a Teaching Excellence Framework (‘TEF’)?
  • What are the institutional behaviours a TEF should drive? How can a system be designed to avoid unintended consequences?
  • What should be the relationship between the TEF and fee level?

Secondly we can  start looking at the various measures of value added or learning gain for different groups of students. HEFCE are already supporting a range of projects involving over 70 institutions to look at learning gain.

One of the unintended consequences that TEF might bring about is a gaming of the system. I’m not suggesting that data returns that feed into league tables are inaccurate, but one part of a successful league table result is a set of carefully constructed data returns. It’s equally likely that it will be possible to do something similar with any TEF submission, so all institutions will learn very quickly how to report data in the best possible way

Finally, recognising that TEF will be used to drive rapid shifts in market share (a euphemism?) then we will all need to get very good, not only at supporting the widest range of students, but also at understanding how the metrics apply to us, and how we can build internal systems to replicate them.