Thresholds, not tiers, are the way to recognise teaching quality

The Green Paper must recognise the diversity of England’s higher education sector, says John Cater

February 25, 2016
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Universities have expertise in a wide variety of areas, John Cater argues

Reportedly, Jo Johnson was dismayed when the analysis of responses to the higher education Green Paper landed on his desk. No one could, or would, argue against the importance of sustaining and further improving the UK’s reputation for strong teaching quality, or advancing the progress made in widening participation over the past decade. But students, staff and universities were united in scepticism as to how this would be facilitated by the minister’s proposals.

In some ways any disappointment was understandable; in public forums the minister has been treated, rightly, with politeness. But, too often, the impression given in questioning and debate extended beyond respect and into a rather flaccid “surface empathy”, rather than the kind of constructive criticism that helps formulate rigorous thought and reflection. This, in turn, may have meant that the nature of many responses, ranging from informed scepticism to downright hostility, was unexpected. But they were not unjustified.

Many are wary of the destruction of a sector body that has, over two decades, effectively managed the relationship between the state and autonomous individuals; others, given the lessons of the past quinquennium, are understandably concerned at the effect the barely moderated opening-up of the sector to a miasma of organisations may have on the reputation of UK higher education; but perhaps the greatest opprobrium has been reserved for the proposal to create a teaching excellence framework with four tiers.

Some of these concerns are ideological; one should invest in improving the weakest provision, not penalise it (and the experience of students therein). Some are definitional, such as the TEF appearing to include a ragbag of compliance and audit measures. Some are pragmatic; is the state really going to publish and rely on tables that list some of the world’s leading universities in the bottom quartile for teaching quality? And some are operational; with the consumer price index racing along at 0.3 per cent, its highest rate for a year, the proposed differential between the highest- and the lowest-rated would be a mere £27 per annum, and no more than 1 per cent of tuition fee income by the end of the current Parliament. But the government is determined to differentiate. Is there a way forward?   

A major consequence of the flat £9,000 fee is not that it fails to differentiate between institutions; it is that it fails to differentiate between programmes. English or history, a law or accounting or business degree, delivered to a mass intake, generates almost the same income as an applied and practice-based programme and relatively little less than a laboratory-based science or engineering qualification.

It would be far better to invest the additional resource accounting and budgeting cost in those subjects that universities are struggling to deliver with a flat fee. The sums may be small initially, but a simple revitalisation of the resource allocated to the “banding” system used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for many years would be a good place to start.    

But how, then, does the minister achieve his goal of differentiating the sector? The first priority is to set a challenging threshold standard, thereby helping to preserve the good standing of UK higher education internationally, something the Quality Assurance Agency’s Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers has sought to do for many years. Once this threshold has been established, there is no reason why individual institutions cannot be recognised with “quality marks” acknowledging excellence in one or more of a range of fields, including, for example, widening participation, retention, teaching quality, internationalisation, knowledge transfer and graduate employment.

As with all policy proposals, the underlying principles, seeking parity of recognition for the differing types of excellence that characterise individual higher education providers, are hardly new, as those who remember the 2003 White Paper will recall. But the strategy is far more coherent than an attempt to badge three-quarters of UK higher education, by definitional category, as sub-prime. We all know the damage that came from that.

John Cater is vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University.

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