Why I think the TEF is pushing elite universities towards privatisation

Students could be forced to choose between the dodgy dossiers of established reputation and the imposter proxies of the TEF, says Liz Morrish

July 22, 2016
Crashed car
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Crashed: the TEF could amount to reckless joyriding, says Liz Morrish

In July 2016 we are contemplating a new period of instability for universities in the UK, and with the passing of the second reading of the higher education bill, things could quickly get a lot worse.

Let us remind ourselves just how disruptive these changes proposed by the White Paper entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy will be. They include an invitation to new private “challenger institutions” that may be granted degree-awarding powers more quickly than previous regulation allowed. There are changes proposed to governance, academic freedom and protections against arbitrary dismissal that appear to infringe the historic autonomy that universities enjoyed from government. A critique of the proposed changes can be found in an alternative White Paper, authored by a group of concerned academics.

The most unnecessary and wasteful plan related to the White Paper is for a teaching excellence framework, measuring institutions’ performance on student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment. This has been proposed to correct supposedly “lamentable” teaching

From 2018-19, an award of “excellent” or “outstanding” in the TEF will permit an institution to increase its fees in line with inflation. Others, even those meeting expectations, will suffer various degrees of attrition and their students condemned to a “choice” of an educational resource eroded by inflation.

The government remains confident that good teaching can be measured on an institutional basis, but the first point to emphasise is that these measures are, as the White Paper admits, proxies, not measures of good teaching that transpires in classrooms and other learning contexts.

Secondly, nowhere in the White Paper is there any evidence of so-called lamentable teaching. In fact, the published National Student Survey figures show the opposite. Taken nationally, the average figure is extremely high at 86 per cent, with a rather small range of scores. So why, asks Dorothy Bishop, is there any need for a TEF?

It is hard to avoid the implication that there is likely to be a shift in the direction of prioritising graduate earnings, and indeed, it is one of the proposed measures as the TEF moves towards “a more granular and informative assessment of graduate outcomes”. Possibly the best exposé of this misguided proxy measure was the study published in April by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It demolishes graduate salary as a metric, with its finding that “graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities”. Although this study is acknowledged in the White Paper, the logic is not absorbed.

If we can assume that excellent teaching will not be restricted to more socially advantaged students, what relevance is there to measuring graduate earnings? We can detect an implicit threat in the White Paper that the government may seek to pressure universities to close courses that do not deliver the right “outcomes”, ie, graduates who are able to earn enough to pay back the cost of their student loans. That, then, is the real purpose of this metric. Purely ideological: your graduates don’t pay back, your course is closed.

In 2017-18, the TEF will be run on a voluntary basis. A “provider” can opt in, presumably if it wishes to establish a good reputation for teaching. A mock league table of benchmark-adjusted metrics published by Times Higher Education showed that the Russell Group universities were eclipsed by a Midlands triangle of Loughborough, Aston and De Montfort universities. But this could also be part of the script. The government is creating the conditions whereby the Russell Group flounce out of the TEF and follow the incentives towards privatisation.

It is only a matter of time before the elite universities follow their counterparts in Australia and start charging variable fees that will have nothing to do with teaching quality and everything to do with accrued reputation; something which the White Paper claims it wishes to dismantle. Rather than providing concrete information on which students can base their choices, this uninformative snapshot will leave students confused, and obliged to choose between the dodgy dossiers of established reputation and the imposter proxies of the TEF.

The TEF will do nothing to increase good teaching, curtail bad teaching or provide students with any more guidance than they already have. And if the REF is anything to go by, it will involve escalating costs and a scale of wastage that makes older, experienced academics weep with regret at what could be achieved if only the money were spent wisely. The cost-benefit analysis is provided by Dorothy Bishop here.

Universities have gone along with the REF because (up to now at least) there were reputational, even if few financial, gains to be won. The TEF allows for little financial gain, and also looks to be repeating some of the reputational mistakes of the early QAA subject reviews that denounced some subjects as failing. The TEF, even when it launches its disciplinary-level “granularity” will not be a “game-changer”.

Even though universities now have the tools to immediately individualise TEF scores of student satisfaction, nobody is going to be poached by a university for their superior teaching scores. Similarly, I would imagine that few academics will be to be tempted to move to a stronger teaching department. And bear in mind, academics have limited agency to affect outcomes such as retention, student satisfaction and employment. Students may be very satisfied with individual teachers, while perceiving elements of the course to be disappointing, funding to be inadequate, accommodation too expensive or the claims of family or paid employment to be stronger.

For universities it is another hurdle to be surmounted. A promised tuition fee rise in line with inflation will be quickly consumed in the arms race to enhance the institutional image. But the government’s "nudge unit" will clock up another win as soon as it achieves the desired outcomes: privatisation of an elite tier of universities free to charge whatever they wish and, perhaps, the closure of a few universities that have widened participation, but failed to compensate for the calculated upward distribution of wealth that has been part of the neoliberal project. Whether the higher education bill is creative disruption or reckless joyriding remains to be seen.

Liz Morrish researches the discourse of audit culture and managerialism in higher education. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on her blog, Academic Irregularities.

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