Vice-chancellors have called for the teaching excellence framework to be “decoupled” from decisions about the tuition fees that universities are allowed to charge.
The government’s higher education Green Paper proposes that institutions’ performance in the TEF should determine their permitted fee increase, but sector leaders warned against this at a hearing of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which also heard evidence from Times Higher Education experts.
Dave Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of the Million+ mission group of newer universities, said he was “absolutely clear” that fees should be kept separate from the TEF.
“I don’t see any basis for coupling the fees, and I don’t see as yet any clear advantages that [have] been put to me,” he said. “I think, if anything, if we could simplify what we are trying to achieve with the TEF, it’s more likely to deliver some real benefits to the sector and the students.”
Professor Phoenix said that if the government’s aim was to create a genuine market based on quality and price, there needed to be a debate about how this could be achieved, not “artificial interventions” from ministers.
Speaking on behalf of the Russell Group of highly selective universities, Sir David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, agreed.
“My own view is that decoupling the TEF from the fee cap would be sensible,” Sir David said.
“We do have to have a serious debate around funding over the next five years, otherwise year-on-year funding will reduce and the consequence of that will be an erosion of the quality of learning and teaching, so I welcome the fact the Green Paper has put that on the agenda.”
The vice-chancellors found themselves aligned with Megan Dunn, president of the National Union of Students, who argued that a fee link would lead to students seeing tuition charges as an indicator of teaching quality when, in fact, changes in inflation could have a significantly misleading impact.
Institutions that were allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation in years when the index was high would end up charging much more than those who did well in years with low inflation, she said.
Ms Dunn added that a fee link would effectively “penalise” institutions that did less well in the TEF, making it harder for them to “catch up” with universities that did well.
Other witnesses included John Widdowson, president of the Association of Colleges and principal of New College Durham, who said that a link with fees could encourage “gaming” of metrics that form part of TEF assessments.
There was also evidence in the session from John Gill, editor of THE, and Nicki Horseman, lead HE data analyst for THE.
Mr Gill told the committee that adopting a common set of metrics for the TEF could lead the sector “down the path to homogeneity” and that the metrics that were currently proposed – such as graduate employment data – measured “the type of student the university has, not what the university has done with the student”.