Should tuition fees be linked to TEF performance? The case for and against

Maddalaine Ansell and Sorana Vieru give their differing takes on the recent Lords amendment to the HE and Research Bill

March 7, 2017
Tuition fee hike
Source: iStock

The case for: Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance

The UK universities minister, Jo Johnson, has an ambitious – some might even say bold – plan for encouraging the higher education sector to concentrate on teaching excellence. As with any bold initiative, it has its critics.

Some see the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill as an opportunity to change direction, kill it off, or – like Lord Kerslake's amendment, which found favour with the Lords on Monday – break the link between financial incentives and good teaching. This would be a mistake.

At the moment, universities acquire prestige largely through the quality of their research. Those with the highest volume tend to do very well in league tables. 

Many students, however, are more interested in the quality of their course and whether it will help them to get a good job.

The government is hoping that its teaching excellence framework (TEF) will prompt universities to pay the same attention to the quality of their teaching as their research. Institutions that score highly will not only get reputational benefits but will also be allowed to raise their tuition fees, although not by more than inflation.

Many in the sector see this as an exciting opportunity. Members of the University Alliance group have, over time, developed excellence in professional and technical education, providing degrees that are often designed with industry and reflect the latest research and scholarship.

These universities offer distinct teaching methods that enable students to learn by doing. Because these students typically come from a wide range of backgrounds, they are also offered an array of co-curricular activities designed to increase their confidence and their employability. Many hope that this will be recognised through a “gold” or “silver” TEF rating.

Nevertheless, while students want excellent teaching, they are also concerned about the cost of university tuition. Even an increase in fees limited to inflation will be unpopular. This is not surprising – but a rise is ultimately necessary.

If fees don’t increase in line with inflation, they will be eroded by it. In time, this would reduce the quality of education and the student experience that universities can offer.

Linking fee increases to the TEF is not a perfect mechanism, and it will throw up some uncomfortable anomalies. For example, as the TEF is judged at institutional level, an excellent department in a “bronze” university will have to work harder to maintain its excellence as the value of fees that their institution can charge goes down and they have less money to run the course. Similarly, students on a below-average course at a “gold” university may be paying for excellence that they are not getting.

Because of this, many vice-chancellors would have preferred a blanket increase in fees – but the link with the TEF is more likely to ensure that students get the high-quality education they are paying for.

Other critics feel that the challenge of measuring teaching excellence is so great that we should not try. The higher education sector is extremely diverse, ranging from large metropolitan universities that teach a wide range of subjects to small and specialist institutions and conservatoires. Good teaching might look very different in each.

The TEF attempts to address these differences by measuring outcomes such as feedback from students, retention and employment rather than inputs such as contact hours or teaching qualifications. External factors such as social disadvantage, age, race and prior attainment are accounted for. It’s not just about metrics, though: every university will be reviewed by a panel of its peers before the institution receives its award.

This goes a long way to making the system fair. It is also clear that it will be effective. Universities are all thinking hard about how they can improve their overall excellence and identify any pockets of underperformance. But the metrics and the benchmarking are not perfect and need to develop further. After all, the research excellence framework evolved over 30 years.

The Department for Education has promised to keep improving the TEF in consultation with universities.

So the Higher Education and Research Bill should not be used to try to kill off the TEF. Nor to the remove financial incentives. Universities need to maintain investment in their courses – and students need to know that they will benefit.


 

The case against: Sorana Vieru, vice-president (higher education), National Union of Students

I was only three days into my role when the NUS received a phone call from Jo Johnson to let us know about his plans to introduce a teaching excellence framework. What was then something tacked into an election manifesto for a Conservative Party expecting to form another coalition government has become the defining feature of the Higher Education and Research Bill, as well as both my and the minister’s shared time in office.

Quite the feat given that the TEF could happen with or without the HE Bill. So yesterday’s vote in the Lords, to reject the link between the TEF and tuition fees, was a defining moment for both of us.

In among all the excesses of the bill, it was the link between the TEF and tuition fees, and its tenuous relationship to teaching quality, which stood out for our members. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that the NUS stands for free education and campaigns for the end of tuition fees. But for us, the link between the TEF and fees was about so much more than a sticker price on education.

The use of metrics that told us nothing about teaching quality and everything about social status, perverse barriers for international student recruitment and – crucially – market-led fee-level differentiation between different institutions, all left us with no option. Students had to lead a rebellion against the link between the TEF and fees, and lead it we did, making the case time and again that “quality doesn’t grow on fees”.

Since then, the cracks in the TEF have been plain for all to see, particularly when it came to making use of the National Student Survey (NSS) as a core metric. Students made it loud and clear that we would not have our own feedback used against us, with 25 unions boycotting the NSS, and dozens more campaigning against the link. Chris Husbands, chair of the TEF panel, told an audience at the House of Commons: “I do not think student satisfaction is an accurate proxy for teaching quality.”

We are in no doubt that yesterday’s Lords vote resulted from the unwavering commitment of students and students’ unions. It was disappointing for all of us at the NUS in November to hear Johnson stand up in Parliament and say that he had heard no voices in the education sector speaking out against the link between the TEF and fees. Not only because this government time and again fails to recognise students as a vital part of the higher education sector, but because it was true. Despite early opposition to the link, many sector bodies and vice-chancellors rolled over, putting principles aside for “pragmatism”.

Yet still we stood our ground. From lobbying their MPs to running NSS boycotts, doing stunts and protests on campus, and occupying university buildings; from making the case time and again to their vice-chancellors to working with the Labour shadow Cabinet to submit amendments to the bill, the NUS, students and students’ unions have never given up on fighting the link between the TEF and fees.

Although the vote has been won in the Lords, we are under no illusions that this is over. We know full well that this is not a conclusive victory, but a reprieve.

The whole sector – institutions, sector bodies, the government and, yes, students – needs to work together to come up with a better plan for teaching excellence. One that leaves no student or institution behind, and genuinely improves the quality of teaching, instead of a framework poorly designed to introduce a false market.

Only by working together can we secure a better future for higher education.

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