President Donald Trump’s spokesperson waved away the embarrassing inauguration photographs and claimed that his swearing-in was the best-attended ever. “Period.” Something of the same air of hotly asserted “alternative fact” is beginning to hover in the debates about the teaching excellence framework (TEF). Fortunately, the Lords, who are currently scrutinising the Higher Education and Research Bill, can spot nonsense when they see it.
On 18 January, in their fourth session in the committee stage of the bill, the Lords got stuck into the TEF. Peers had not been deceived by the content of “Schedule 2” (linking the case for a fees increase to the TEF). It was, said Lord Watson of Invergowrie, really about “permitting providers to charge fees...according to their ratings for teaching quality”.
The Lords’ sharp eye may also embarrass TEF-compliant universities. In mid-December, the University of Cambridge published its intention to join the TEFers, giving no reason but a financial one. It just wants to be able to charge higher fees. (The University of Oxford apparently has the same intention but is not being so frank. Its reasoning can only be guessed at for the moment).
Lord Watson noted in the debate an awkward contradiction here:
Many universities have said in their response to the bill that there is no evidence to point to fee increases improving the quality of teaching. The University of Cambridge stated in its written evidence that the link between the TEF and fees is, “bound to affect student decision-making adversely and in particular it may deter students from low-income families from applying to the best universities”.
He also said that discarding the question of actual improvement to teaching “is a clear example of the government’s view that the bill is as much a question of consumerism as it is about education”.
Not all universities are giving in for the sake of the money, however. The University of Edinburgh has joined “a significant number of other Scottish universities” in deciding not to take part. They all have something in common, an enhancement-led system of quality assurance run by QAA Scotland. Edinburgh gives as its reason a preference for focusing “time and resources elsewhere”.
So the Scots have common cause and the comfort of some solidarity in staying out of TEF’s fantasy land. Many providers elsewhere in the UK are running on such tight budgets that they can be forgiven for seeking any funding increase they can get.
But Oxford and Cambridge have resources in billions and Cambridge at least has had problems with its annual calculation of what it actually costs to educate an undergraduate. So one might wish that they had both had the guts and intellectual integrity to decline to have anything to do with TEF.
Gill R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.