The timetable to introduce the teaching excellence framework is so tight that the government risks having to rely on existing measures to judge university teaching so that some institutions can charge fees above £9,000.
That is the view that has emerged after George Osborne, the chancellor, announced in the 8 July Budget that the fee cap would be linked to inflation from 2017-18 “for those institutions that can show they offer high-quality teaching”.
Senior sector figures see the fees plan as part of a radical government move to “differentiate the market”, alongside plans to open up the sector further to “new providers” announced in the Productivity Plan published by the government on 10 July.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, who was special adviser to former universities and science minister David Willetts, said the Budget measures did “begin to put differential fees on the agenda in a way they haven’t yet been to date", although he doubted there was political will among Conservatives to lift caps above inflation.
But questions have been raised over the timetable for using the recently announced TEF to measure teaching quality.
Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, who was the lead civil servant on the Browne Review of higher education funding, said decisions on fee caps for 2017-18 “would need to be made by spring or early summer 2016”.
“So either the TEF needs to be merely an aggregation of existing measures or, if TEF is to involve new data collection, the decisions on fee ceilings need to be based on existing measures. Either way the key question is which existing measures will do [the job].”
Mr Mian said it was easy to imagine an institution “that fails to win the right to charge at the new, higher fee ceiling challenging that decision in court”, meaning the fee-setting process “has to be robust”.
David Phoenix, the London South Bank University vice-chancellor, said that if fees were to rise from 2017 “the only things I could see that you could link it to would be existing data measures. And if you were going to do that, I would worry that you’re not necessarily getting underneath the quality of the academic environment and the student experience.”
Professor Phoenix said that existing metrics on employability or completion rates “all link back to a range of variables: gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background” in terms of an institution’s student intake and there was, as yet, insufficient understanding of the “value added” by institutions.
He cautioned that “rushing” into grading institutions for 2017 might “create a crude tool to influence the market” and in so doing “undermine the reputation of the UK higher education sector as a whole”.
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said it would "consult on the TEF mechanisms" for allowing universities with high-quality teaching to increase fees from 2017-18.
Something that certainly will not form part of the TEF is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project, aimed at testing graduates’ knowledge and skills. A BIS spokesman said this week it would not be taking part as “our current national programme of work on measuring learning gain...provides a more efficient and focused approach for this country”.