We know that employers need more graduate-level skills to help grow their businesses, and lifting the artificial cap on student numbers has made many more university places available. The participation rate in my own constituency of Cannock Chase is up to about 23 per cent of 18 year olds, from 19 per cent in 2010, with similar progress evident across the rest of the country.
This should be a win-win for students and employers, but the reality is much more complex. All too often we hear students and parents ask this simple but worrying question: is a degree worth it? Over the past few months, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has been trying to answer this question.
The committee’s report on quality in higher education has been published this week. The inquiry’s main focus was the government’s plan for a teaching excellence framework. While no one can argue that the TEF has come out of the blue (after all, it was in the Conservatives’ election manifesto), it is hardly a surprise that many witnesses had real questions about how it will affect their institutions, what metrics should be used, and how they should be applied.
Overall, however, there was a striking consensus around the rationale for TEF. Tuition fees have not stopped young people going to university, but students are now investing more in their own education. That’s why it is important that they are getting a valuable experience and don’t find themselves graduating into non-graduate jobs.
There needs to be a way of assessing the quality and incentivising the best possible teaching. When we talk about teaching, we’re not just talking about what happens in the lecture theatre but also an institution’s whole approach to their students: from the way they recruit and support applicants from the least advantaged backgrounds to the way in which they help students into the world of work.
The research excellence framework has been in place for some time now and is a recognised way of assessing and incentivising high-quality research, but there has not been a similar approach when it comes to evaluating teaching. The architecture of higher education is heavily geared to prioritise academic research and, while this is a good thing for our science base, it needs to be more all-encompassing. The introduction of the TEF is a way in which this can be achieved.
The trickiest issue is inevitably the link with tuition fees. The real value of tuition fees has been declining and, understandably, universities are concerned about maintaining levels of investment. With the student loan system, we have a way of ensuring that students don’t need to meet these costs upfront. The impact on students would be limited as the government is not intending to increase the fee cap above inflation, but it makes sense to ensure that there is accountability for any fee indexation. Creating accountability is where TEF has a role to play.
The committee’s report sets out several recommendations in terms of where the government needs to focus as it continues to consult. At a very fundamental level, however, the Green Paper is on the right track. Teaching quality is the higher education challenge of this decade and I believe that the higher education sector has a responsibility to engage with TEF to make it work.
It’s time to raise the status of teaching in universities. As a committee, we’ll continue to scrutinise the government’s plans.
Amanda Milling is MP for Cannock Chase and a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.