HE and Research Bill: Lords debate debrief

Pam Tatlow looks back at a tumultuous day for the HE Bill in the House of Lords

March 7, 2017
Magician pulls rabbit out of hat
Source: Alamy

Did the House of Lords pull a rabbit out of the hat to sever the link between the teaching excellence framework and tuition fees in the most recent skirmishes on the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill? Not if the debate that we heard back in committee stage was anything to go by.

The concerns of MPs and peers about the metrics and methodology of the TEF have been crystal clear from the start. Perhaps ironically, assurances given by the UK universities minister, Jo Johnson, in his 24 February speech to Universities UK that a more robust pilot and an extended timetable would apply to subject-level TEF, proved too little, too late. Everyone knows that the TEF is a work in progress. In the eyes of parliamentarians, this makes the link with fees more, and not less, controversial.

Despite the statements of education ministers that the TEF will not be used to limit or to differentiate the terms by which universities can recruit international students, this cuts little ice with peers who know only too well that the Home Office calls the shots.

Interestingly, the link with fees was not made clear in the Conservative Party’s manifesto, which Johnson helped to pen. The manifesto promised that a Conservative government would “ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students…we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”. No mention, then, that in return for a framework for teaching quality, students would end up paying higher fees.

It was George Osborne who, as chancellor of the Exchequer, pulled the rabbit out of the hat, announcing just weeks after the general election in his 2015 summer Budget, that the TEF would be linked with tuition fees. Unsurprisingly, this conjuring act spurred students into opposing the TEF from which, in principle, they might have benefited.

In responses to consultations about how the TEF might work, UUK opposed the link between the TEF and fees – a position supported by my organisation, MillionPlus, in The Possibilities and Pitfalls of a Teaching Excellence Framework.

It could be argued that universities are now in a double bind. Fee caps have not been increased since 2012. Rises in inflation and in pension and other costs have taken their toll. There is little option but to accept that the TEF in 2017, which is linked only with successful quality assurance, should deliver the capacity to increase fees with inflation.

However, a gold, silver and bronze Olympic medal-style rating system is unlikely to be well understood by students at home or overseas. The prospect of variability in fee levels and adverse impacts on institutional reputation from a TEF that is underdeveloped, was well understood by peers.

It was therefore surprising that UUK and GuildHE, the sector’s trade bodies, issued a briefing to peers that signalled support for the bill as a result of the many amendments tabled by ministers. No one should be churlish. These amendments improve the bill but arguably only take it to the stage that it should have been at to start with.

It is also strange that UUK and GuildHE should have chosen this course of action when Universities Scotland was still campaigning for amendments to UK Research and Innovation’s terms of reference and when, not only the TEF but amendments to improve student electoral registration and take international students out of migration figures were on the table. Moreover (and significantly), the government has made no movement on the weakening of criteria for university title or provisional degree-awarding powers – key issues related to the future reputation and quality of UK higher education.

Whether ministers will tough it out on all the Lords’ amendments is an open question. It would do no harm and much good to accept the amendment that improves the prospect of student voter registration. Even more interesting is the amendment on international students. If this goes through the Lords, ministers cannot necessarily rely on their Commons majority to win the day.

Not all Conservative MPs, including those who support Brexit, accept the logic of counting international students in net migration numbers.

There is, however, one rabbit that would take the heat out of the TEF-fees link. Returning to a system in which there was more direct government funding for teaching is not on the government’s agenda, but it is one that universities and students should at least consider promoting further.

A focus on teaching quality is right and proper, but so is the funding of teaching. The trick for the future will be to square the circle between the prospect of rising contributions from students and graduates and declining levels of direct funding for universities. It’s a question that is unlikely to go away.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of the MillionPlus association for modern universities.

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