The teaching excellence framework is set to allow most English universities to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with institutions being invited to apply for subsequent awards that pave the way for variable fees.
The government’s higher education Green Paper proposes that providers that have met or exceeded expectations in all sections of a recent Quality Assurance Agency review (or equivalent) would be considered to have achieved a “Level 1 TEF award”, allowing them to increase fees beyond £9,000 in line with inflation up to a cap to be set by ministers, for a three-year period.
Most universities would qualify. Of the 24 that were reviewed by the QAA in 2014-15, only one received an unsatisfactory judgement.
In subsequent years of the TEF, institutions would be able to apply for perhaps three further levels, which would be judged on a series of metrics on student outcomes, plus submitted evidence, including whether the provider is using the grade-point average system of degree classification.
The government’s preference is for judgements about teaching excellence to be made on a subject-level basis “as soon as is practicable”, eventually covering taught postgraduate provision as well as undergraduate courses, but assessments would be aggregated to provide an overall institutional award.
Success at higher levels of the TEF, which would also be dependent on meeting widening participation targets and compliance with consumer protection guidance issued by the Competition and Markets Authority, would allow institutions to increase their fees from 2018-19 onwards towards a further series of differentiated fee caps.
The Green Paper says that the government “would not pre-set a formula” for increasing these fee caps, but would “set the uplift each year”, potentially allowing for fee rises every year, “not exceeding real terms increases”.
Initial metrics that have been proposed for the higher levels of the TEF include data from the National Student Survey on teaching quality and the learning environment, and employment figures from sources such as the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education surveys. Information on student retention published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency could also be used.
Significantly, the government proposes to break down all metrics to get results for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups. This information “will be used in making TEF assessments”, the Green Paper says, with a consultation on the details of this planned for 2016.
As the TEF develops, the government plans to incorporate additional metrics, covering areas such as students’ “learning gain” during their time at university. Other metrics that have been proposed include measures of teaching intensity, including the amount of time students spend studying, as measured in the UK Engagement Survey; the proportion of staff time spent on teaching; and the amount of teaching that takes place in small groups.
The training and employment of staff could be measured, potentially including the proportion of staff on permanent contracts, and use of “appropriate pedagogical approaches” could also be analysed.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, writes in the foreword to the Green Paper that “for too long, teaching has been regarded as a poor cousin to academic research”.
“The new teaching excellence framework, which we promised in our manifesto, will hard-wire incentives for excellent teaching and give students much more information both about the type of teaching they can expect and their likely career paths after graduation,” Mr Johnson says.
Beyond the initial three-year term, the government proposes that universities should retain TEF awards for five years, but they would have to be reassessed every time they sought a higher level award, if concerns were raised about standards, or if a provider changed ownership.
A rolling cycle of TEF assessments is proposed, in contrast to the periodic reviews undertaken for the research excellence framework, with an annual window for applications being proposed.
The government plans to set up independent panels of academic experts, students and employer representatives who would judge applications, but they are not expected to visit institutions.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said she welcomed the Green Paper’s emphasis on “demonstrating the value of a university education”.
“The recognition of high-quality teaching in our universities is a welcome step, but we must ensure that this exercise is not an additional burden for those teaching in our universities and that it provides useful information for students, parents and employers,” Dame Julia said. “Universities are already improving the amount of information [they provide] to students about courses to ensure that their experience matches their expectations.”