Beefed-up TEF and new regulator powers ‘mulled by ministers’

As DfE prioritises drive against ‘low-value’ courses, TEF said to be viewed as inadequate while OfS may be reset under new chair

September 3, 2020
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The Department for Education is said to see England’s teaching excellence framework and existing higher education laws as inadequate for advancing its agenda against “low-value” courses, and to be aiming to create new powers for the Office for Students via legislation.

Sector sources said that, with the Conservative government prioritising the drive against courses deemed to offer poor graduate outcomes, the TEF was seen by ministers as not being up to the task.

There are also said to be frustrations within government that the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act does not allow it to pursue its interventionist agenda. Some suggest that the further education bill expected soon could be the means to create new powers for the Office for Students, the English sector regulator created by the 2017 act.

OfS chair Sir Michael Barber, who has taken a data-led approach to regulation, said earlier this year that he will not seek a second term as chair, so will leave in March 2021. The advent of a new chair, appointed by ministers, would provide the government with an additional opportunity, alongside any extra powers, to reset the direction of the OfS.

DfE concern about the TEF is thought to centre around the fact that it is not possible for a university to “fail” the exercise, which offers gold, silver and bronze ratings.

And DfE concern about the OfS is said to include the fact that it has struggled to prevent providers that it has deemed substandard gaining access to its register of providers and thus to public student loans funding. Last month, the Court of Appeal quashed the OfS’ decision to refuse registration to the for-profit Bloomsbury Institute over quality and management concerns, ordering it to reconsider the institution’s application.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, and Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, have recently made speeches that criticised higher education expansion and called for a greater focus on employment outcomes.

Resetting the OfS so that it focuses on retention rates and graduate employment outcomes, including earnings, could provide a means to pressure universities to shut down courses deemed to score poorly on those metrics.

However, Mr Williamson has exhausted his political capital in the crises over the reopening of schools during the pandemic and over A-level results, with doubts over his future raising questions about whether legislation would materialise in the immediate future.

Nevertheless, the deeper ideological currents are likely to remain regardless of ministerial personnel.

Jo Johnson, the former universities and science minister who created the TEF and was responsible for HERA, was a supporter of higher education expansion and wanted the TEF to drive a demand-led system and ensure “rapid market share shifts between universities” by offering signals on quality.

In contrast, the Brexit-era Tory government led by his brother, Boris Johnson, is critical of higher education expansion and wants to prioritise science and perceived high-earnings courses, rather than allowing a demand-led system.

Mr Williamson’s special adviser, Iain Mansfield, designed the TEF during his time as a civil servant.

It is understood that an as yet unpublished independent review of the TEF, received by the government last year and led by former Loughborough University vice-chancellor Dame Shirley Pearce, recommends the creation of a fourth level in the TEF, in effect a “requires improvement” category.

This would make the TEF more like an Ofsted-style school ratings system, according to supporters of the exercise.

Whether the government wants to repurpose the TEF, or abandons it, is a question left unanswered in its continued failure to respond to the review.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Hardly an unbiased reporting of facts. The facts may be in there but couched biased language.
They need to be told firmly to stay away. Compulsory education has been ruined by political meddling and attempts to micro-manage far beyond their competence and we should not permit the same to happen to higher education.
Please no more bureaucrats in the system it is time to cut the bureaucracy No to the TEF, No to the OfS, too many regulators and overpaid bureaucrats and managers in UK Universities already. Free up funds and time for the academics to do the job without all the silly meetings and forms.

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