When academics have complained about plans for the teaching excellence framework (TEF), Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has always been keen to stress that participation in the exercise will be voluntary.
It has been largely assumed that all of England’s universities will take part in the TEF, not least because it offers the only way for them to increase their tuition fees beyond £9,000.
But, in recent months, it has gradually become clear that this is not a foregone conclusion; and a lead story in Times Higher Education this week reveals that some Russell Group vice-chancellors are considering whether to opt out of the TEF altogether.
This would be a significant step: not only would it mean keeping your annual tuition fees at £9,000 while your competitors pushed them up to £10,000 and beyond, but it would also mean forgoing the reputational benefits that might accrue from demonstrating the quality of your teaching.
The fact that some universities might not take part illustrates the depth of the concerns that exist about the impact of the TEF.
Vice-chancellors are concerned that the proposed metrics – student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment – are poor proxies for teaching standards that will fail to capture the diversity of the sector.
They fear that taking part in the TEF will become such an administratively burdensome activity that the cost of participation will become so expensive that it will outweigh the value of an inflationary increase in tuition fees.
And, in the case of England’s most prestigious universities, there is concern that being seen to underperform could be very damaging to institutional reputation.
This is particularly the case because the government has indicated that only about one in four institutions are expected to achieve the top rating of “outstanding”; and analysis by THE has indicated that many of these places could be taken by small campus universities and post-92s.
However, this is not just a debate about individual institutions’ reputations; it also raises questions about the reputation of the TEF itself.
If leading universities choose not to take part in the TEF, it seems likely that they would suffer some reputational damage, risking accusations that they are running scared from an assessment that may present them in less glittering terms than usual.
But many Russell Group institutions might feel that they could ride this out, having based their standing on their research prowess for so long. Their concerns about the metrics, and about the cost, are genuine. Some could already fill their student places several times over, so might not be too concerned by a slight dip in applications.
And, if some of England’s very best universities – or more than a handful of the Russell Group – do opt out, it seems more likely that the reputational damage would be to the TEF itself. How much credibility would an exercise claiming to showcase the best teaching in English higher education have if it did not include the University of Oxford, for example?
Teaching-focused institutions, who have the most to gain from the TEF, could once again find themselves losing out in an environment where research is king.
It seems likely that this is a scenario that Mr Johnson will want to avoid, and the risk of a boycott is likely to be a key bargaining chip as the fine details of how the TEF will operate are worked out: for example, how many institutions can be expected to achieve a rating of outstanding, and how the metrics will be balanced with institutions’ own submitted evidence.
Ultimately, this may be a game of brinksmanship. Although a THE survey found that only three out of the Russell Group’s 20 English members would confirm at this stage that they would participate in the second stage of the TEF, it seems likely that most will come into line eventually.
This is not an issue on which it will be possible for all of the Russell Group’s members to reach an agreed position on, weakening the mission group’s hand, and the financial incentives are likely to prove too great in the end.
The fact that Mr Johnson offered to drop the link between fees and the TEF, but that universities did not take this up when it became clear that there was no other means by which fees could be increased, is striking.
One scenario that is possible is that concerned universities may stay out of the TEF assessments at first, until they are more convinced about what the impact will be, or until more sophisticated – or acceptable – metrics are developed. They may choose to join at a later stage.
But a couple of things are clear: we should stop assuming that all universities will take part in the TEF; and we should probably start debating what the impact of some leading institutions not taking part might be.