For a man giving an early speech in his first ministerial post in a small, stuffy room on a sweltering hot day, Jo Johnson kept very cool in talking about a major new policy development: the Teaching Excellence Framework.
He took questions at the end of his speech from the audience of journalists and sector leaders in the Universities UK boardroom, but managed to avoid getting pinned down where he didn’t want to be. He gave polished non-answers on whether the TEF will produce a league table, what “outcome” metrics will be included in it and, most importantly, whether it could be used to raise fees.
Is the TEF seen by the government a way to usher in truly variable fees? Where the University of Oxford, say, is among those free to charge tuition fees to some ceiling set above £10,000, while others remain limited to £9,000?
Johnson, who made it clear it was his personal priority as minister to introduce the TEF in a bid to improve teaching quality, certainly didn’t do anything to counter that theory today. A version of the speech briefed to the media yesterday said that the TEF would give universities “financial and reputational incentives” to improve teaching. Yet when Mr Johnson actually delivered the speech, he referred only to “incentives”. There is clearly sensitivity about anything that could be seen as a hint of a possibility of a chance of a fee rise.
One theory runs that once the Conservatives have passed "English Votes for English Laws", they would be in a better position to get a rise in fees through Parliament. And those universities that do well in the TEF could be the ones allowed to charge higher fees, continues the theory.
Others argue it would be a mistake to believe that the government has such detailed plans – it’s all far less coherent on the inside than you might believe looking from the outside.
Johnson also talked a lot about graduate earnings data in the speech. Although he was speaking in more general terms beyond the TEF, it seems clear that some form of graduate earnings data will be among the “outcome-focused” metrics planned for inclusion in the new framework.
He threw in a mention that employment and earnings data to be amassed by BIS in future will include “DWP benefits data”, indicating that in some form, universities are going to be judged on what proportion of their graduates go on to claim benefits.
Plenty of vice-chancellors were concerned about what the TEF and graduate earnings metrics mean for universities whose graduates go on to lower-paid public sector jobs, or those universities in parts of the country where salaries are lower.
The risk is, they argue, that the TEF includes a range of metrics that are actually telling a story about one thing: how affluent a university’s intake of graduates is. Johnson countered that the TEF would take into account the type of students a university admits.
His talk about the need to change degree classifications to tackle the problem of students “coasting” to 2:1s may also raise concerns among universities about potential threats to autonomy.
An autumn Green Paper, often viewed as a prelude to legislation, was promised by Mr Johnson. Does a Green Paper mean there will be legislation for a TEF? Why would it need legislation? If it needed a bill, would that mean the TEF was linked to fees?
Higher education now has an engaged minister with a major policy change he wants to steer through – whether that turns out to be a good thing for universities and students remains to be seen. But at least we don’t have to listen to any more Greg Clark speeches.