Lords cut through TEF ‘nonsense’

Gill Evans laments the financial cases universities make for entering the teaching excellence framework

January 24, 2017
Members of the House of Lords
Source: Getty

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.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (1)

The points here are somewhat undermined by the fact that Scottish universities have no financial incentive to enter TEF, as it will not enable them to raise fees (I suggest that may be the reason for their solidarity, rather than their QE system). The broader issue is the fact that the TEF would allow fees to be raised, at most, in line with inflation, which is not an increase in a real sense: it just stops the decline in the real terms value of fees, a decline which means fees are already worth only £8200, and were projected to drop below £7500 over the next three years, even on the (much lower) pre-Brexit RPI-X forecasts.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

opinion illustration

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride