The likely inclusion of widening participation metrics in the teaching excellence framework is being shaped by ministers’ drive to meet targets set by David Cameron and a fear of dropout rates rising after the scrapping of student number controls, sector observers have suggested.
As the government prepared to publish a Green Paper setting out plans on the TEF and other key issues, some in the sector also argued that plans to step up “market entry and exit” in English higher education represent a “reckless” gamble with the sector’s reputation.
It was expected that the Green Paper, which will put out plans for consultation before a potential White Paper and bill, will be broken down into four key areas: the TEF, widening participation, market entry and exit, and reshaping the sector’s regulatory framework.
Ministers are said to be surprised that the widening participation target set by Mr Cameron – doubling the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education from 13.6 per cent in 2009 to 28 per cent in 2020 – has not received more attention from the media.
Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on 6 October that “widening participation and access will be intimately linked to the TEF”.
“One of the core metrics we envisage using in the TEF will be the progress and the value add [for] students from disadvantaged backgrounds, measuring it for example in terms of their retention and completion rates,” he added at the event, hosted by Million+ and the National Union of Students.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has traced the origin of Mr Cameron’s widening participation target back to a Conservative press release in April during the general election campaign, on guarantees for young people. The target is “buried in the notes to editors”, he said.
‘Exciting and necessary’
Mr Hillman suggested that the inclusion of widening participation and retention metrics in the TEF is driven by the need to meet Mr Cameron’s target, as well as by a fear that the abolition of student number controls could increase dropout rates, particularly for poorer students.
He said: “I read that commitment to widening participation [in the TEF] as ‘gosh we need a lever to deliver the prime minister’s commitment. Secondly, we’ve got to do something about no number caps because otherwise this policy will blow up in our faces.’”
Mr Hillman argued that the TEF agenda was “exciting and necessary”. But he also said: “The more things you want the TEF to deliver, the harder it is going to be to operate. The TEF is a measure of teaching quality – it’s not actually a measure of how many poor kids are at a university and passing out of university at the end.” Although he added that it “can be made such”.
At the Conservative Party conference fringe event, Mr Johnson also said that he wanted to “not only have the capacity for more rapid market entry”, but to have “the capacity for more rapid market share shifts between universities”.
He added that where market share shifts and institutions withdraw from courses, or even withdraw from higher education altogether, “we need to ensure there is proper provision for students so they can be taught out at other institutions if they are midway through their courses”.
Gill Evans, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge and an expert on higher education governance, said that was a “reckless” move.
She added: “The tradition which has built the high reputation of UK higher education is that a university is durable. Get a degree with its name on it and that degree will still have value throughout your career. In the new world, fly-by-night outfits may barely last long enough to award their first degrees.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said the “idea that English higher education should be operated on pure market principles with a government expectation of rapid market entry and exit is one that should be approached with extreme caution. Such a premise would raise questions about sector stability and reputation as well as the future of private investment and the student interest.”
Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said that the questions around institutional exits were “a lot more complex than simply protecting the student”.
He also argued that “the conditions for creating a market simply do not apply in higher education”.
Professor Brown suggested that supporters of the market view have not addressed the question of “what the higher education market is a market in”, whether it is in “degrees, student outcomes, reputation or student experience”.