In November of 2015, the government published a paper titled “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”. This was followed up by a Green Paper (“The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education”) in February 2016 and a final White Paper in May (“Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”). Behind these bureaucratic titles lies the largest change in Higher Education since the tripling of fees back in 2012. In effect what the government has decided is, amongst other changes, to link funding and fees to teaching quality as assessed through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). As most of you have probably heard, the University of Leeds will raise fees to £9,250 for 2017/18 for new students. And under the new framework it probably won’t stop there.
Before we can go into a discussion of the effects of the TEF, let’s establish what it is. The three reports mentioned above span roughly 250 pages with mind-numbing language and detail, however there are certain key points that quickly become crystallized when looking at the information. Firstly , the TEF is technically only part of these changes which concern the development of a government backed league table, similar to the Guardian League Tables. Its goal will be to provide students with “clear information” regarding the quality of teaching. This will also be linked to access to funding, both by the government and the ability to charge higher fees. However, for simplicity sake, I will take the TEF to mean the entire expanse of changes set out in the White Paper, but the focus will be mainly on this new scoring system. Besides this, the TEF will establish the Office of Students as the new regulating body for all higher education providers and the establishment of the UK Research and Innovation being responsible for almost all research funding. This body will encompass the current 7 separate research councils. The TEF will also change the process of securing university titles and degree-awarding powers, making both substantially easier than before. Both changes are meant to encourage competition and choice, by allowing start-up higher education providers to establish themselves quicker as viable alternatives.
Going a little deeper into the TEF itself; every provider for higher education that has signed up for it will receive either a Bronze, Silver or Gold award (before public consultation the rankings were “meets expectations”, “outstanding” and “excellence”, however this was scrapped due to ambiguity). The awards will be handed in the following proportions; 20-30% will receive Gold, 50-60% will receive Silver and 20% will receive Bronze. Therefore, there will be a fixed percentage of Gold universities, Silver universities etc. The award will be based on several key metrics: the National Student Survey, retention, proportion in employment or further study; and a high skilled employment metric. Providers will also be able to supplement these application with information that they provide. Benchmarking will aim to ensure that universities are comparable by adjusting the sector average indicators to students with certain characteristics. The data will be averaged over three years, with each university up for renewal after three years. A little more context on the awards; Gold will be awarded to institutions that provide outstanding outcomes, stretching students, optimum contact time and outstanding resources, Silver will be awarded that provide appropriate level of contact time and high stretch and Bronze will be awarded to institutions that provide below benchmark education in one or more areas (abridged version of descriptors). A Gold ranking will mean that universities can raise their fees by inflation (Retail Price Index, normally around 2-3%), Silver ranking will mean half of inflation and Bronze ranking will mean no raise in fees at all.
To go into the reasons why so many Universities consider the TEF a flawed model, The Gryphon interviewed George Bradley, a Project Support Coordinator for the Union and the Leeds Coordinator for the recent protest down in London. The turnout was fantastic, with over 15,000 students protesting and 95 students from the University of Leeds, making it the second largest demonstration since 2010 with the tripling of student fees. According to George, the main criticism for the TEF is the flawed metrics. He points out that institutions with a focus on international students, such as LSE (with roughly 70% of its student body being international) will score considerably lower. According to the mock TEF table which Times Higher Education published, Bath is the only Russel Group University in the Top 10, LSE is at 81, Leeds at 25 (most likely being a top silver) and Oxford at 28 with Oxford Brookes being at 20. Our own Leeds Beckett is at 113. All of these are with 120 ranked institutions. The rise in fees aside, if these rankings are then matched to the ability to hand out Tier 4 visas, then universities reliant heavily on international students will have to rethink their business model. He also added that this will mean a decrease in bursaries over time, negatively impacting individuals from lower socio-economic background. An example of the effects could be seen at Leeds Beckett, which has a much more local appeal and a more vocational focus. With such a low ranking in the TEF, it may have to cut certain courses and shrink with lower and lower real fees over time. On the other side George pointed out that this increase in fees will also mean a shift away from government funding, transferring the national debt to individual debt.
Regarding the topic of funding, he mentioned that the tuition fees disproportionately benefit STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students. The university is going to spend £96 million on the Centre for Engineering and Physical Sciences. This is the largest, single-project investment ever on the University Campus. This stands in comparison to £7.6 million on the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies. Although it is understandable that there are certain areas requiring more funding than others. With an increase in fees, this difference in funding may continue and increase. He also points out that with these differences in fees, price might become more and more important, as universities will be able to adopt different fee levels. Following the option to treble fees in 2012, almost all universities did, with 76% charging the maximum fees some courses and a third for all courses. On average, the annual tuition fee is £8,700. Therefore, it is only reasonable to assume that the universities will charge higher and higher fees if allowed to. George also wanted to point out that the Union line is free education and opposes the TEF as it stands. However he acknowledges that this is in contrast to them helping in the process of filling out the application.
Adding to the Unions criticism, there are other common criticism. One is that the metrics are not a good surrogate for measuring teaching excellence. An example would be the focus on contact time. Although students want contact time, educators point out that this is not the way of higher education, which is often founded on the principle that students should learn to be independent. Furthermore, the metrics such as retention rates, punish institutions which attract individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Several studies have found that such individuals are more likely to drop out. Some are also pointing to grossly misrepresented facts and statistics which have been used to come to the conclusion that such a framework is even necessary. Lastly, student responses on the National Student Survey might not reflect teaching quality either, with students votes potentially being skewed by ulterior motives. London Universities for example, have reported that location is critical in student satisfaction surveys, with the high cost of living and transportation costs overshadowing the teaching itself. Lastly, the TEF has the chance to be a bureaucratic monster both for universities and for the government, sucking up time and resources.
Whether the TEF is refined and made into a usable tool by prospective students, whether the metrics are overhauled and if Universities start gaming the system is unclear. The TEF will come though and Universities will most likely adopt it, despite calls for boycotts by several universities. Fees will most likely rise across the board. What the impact on teaching quality will be, one of the reasons this originally started, is to be seen.
By Tim Knickmann
This is a very brief overview of a huge volume of information. I understand that at times I may have unknowingly and unwillingly missed out important information or misrepresented some of the information. For more information on all of this; the Vice-Chancellor has released a statement, the Reports are publicly available, a mock TEF table has been drawn up by Times Higher Education and all major newspapers have published articles on it. Alternatively, please contact The Gryphon, which will be able to provide you with the sources for this article.