The TEF: trading standards whose time has come

Students are dangerously unclear on the value of their high-ticket education, says David Palfreyman. We urgently need ‘contracts to educate’

June 30, 2016
David Humphries illustration (30 June 2016)
Source: David Humphries

Times Higher Education’s “mock TEF”, published last week, certainly put the cat among the pigeons in the higher education sector. Based on the metrics the government has indicated it will use in the real teaching excellence framework, the exercise demonstrated the extent to which it could challenge the reputations of many of the existing “elite” institutions.

No doubt the exercise will also increase the lobbying from those same institutions either for the TEF to be scrapped or for its methodology to be doctored so that they come out of the exercise looking rosier. But it would be a grave mistake for the government to submit. A meaningful TEF is essential in the modern higher education environment.

There is no simple basis for determining the exact proportions of the cost of undergraduate teaching to be borne by the state, as opposed to being carried by the student: that is all a question of politics, as played out in particular nations at specific moments.

Around the world, though, the trend is for students to fund higher education via tuition fees, and this carries implications for the relationship between students, their institution and the state.

We cannot go on with a system of higher education regulation that was designed for an era of grant-funded elite provision now that we are in an age of mass higher education financed through student fee-loans.

As this marketisation of universities develops, “the provider state” becomes “the regulatory state” and acquires a new duty to ensure effective consumer protection for undergraduate students. The fact is that a student loan will probably be a student’s third-largest item of lifelong expenditure, after buying a house and committing to a pension scheme. The state, rightly, wishes to encourage an effective market in this space – but, as with most markets, it needs to provide some sort of regulation to protect against failure.

The emerging market in English universities for UK and EU undergraduates is not without precedent – it is much like the one already operated enthusiastically and lucratively since the 1980s for international students, or the one created by the very profitable product line of postgraduate taught courses.

The current mechanisms in place to measure quality, teaching and learning and the student experience seem largely to have failed to prevent a decline in the quantity and quality of undergraduate teaching at the chalkface. That’s why the government is right to develop the TEF – not least as a counter to the research excellence framework, which has distorted the incentives inside universities away from teaching.

But left to the producer-oriented higher education industry, the TEF would risk becoming just another forgotten acronym, recycling the same tired quality-assessment and quality-enhancement ideas and failing to tackle the baked-in information asymmetry that exists in the transaction between universities and students, leaving students dangerously unclear about the real-world value of what they are spending such large sums on.

The development of the TEF should be transferred as soon as possible to the proposed new Office for Students, which must then approach the evolution of the exercise in a radical new way that builds upon consumer principles and the regulatory experience of shifting other economic activity away from free public delivery. It should also draw insight from the Competition and Markets Authority and the consumer watchdog Which? The formidable Mumsnet generation of mothers will also help, once their firepower, currently focused on their children’s headteachers, is turned on their vice-chancellors in a few years’ time.

An industry-wide, university-student “contract to educate” must also be implemented. This should incorporate as binding terms the representations made by the university to the applicant/student-consumer, and include the essential comparative data that students need to begin to overcome the information asymmetry problem.

In the meantime, in its early years, the TEF will have to make do with the data available. The incumbent higher education industry usually resists progress by seeking perfection of metrics before reluctantly allowing their use – and then quibbling over the cost of seeking such data perfection. Yet the reality is that no ideal mechanism can ever be created: there will always be a trade-off between progress and the time and cost incurred in seeking the perfection of metrics.

If the student had a contractual certainty over key aspects of teaching and assessment, much of the dissatisfaction with the value for money of undergraduate education could be addressed. And, since universities would have less opportunity to hide the reality of their egregious neglect of the resourcing of it, the quality of teaching and learning would be improved.

This, then, is an unashamedly consumerist approach to quality issues in undergraduate teaching. It is urgently needed because the bureaucratic quality and audit approach favoured by the industry has failed to deliver.

The stick will be an utterly clear and truly enforceable student-university contract, leaving the university-trader little room to fudge. The carrot will be the opportunity for the university to maintain the value of fees for its biggest-selling product range.

David Palfreyman is director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Oxford. He is co-author, with Ted Tapper, of Reshaping the University: The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education (2004).

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