Given the expense involved in putting together the research excellence framework (REF) every few years, many are now wondering what the administrative cost to the sector will be of its teaching cousin.
According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), an impact assessment with a best-cost estimate for the teaching excellence framework (TEF) has been done but will only be published in the course of the approval process for the new Higher Education and Research Bill.
There are no clear predictions as to how much the TEF will cost in the government’s White Paper on higher education, but the government seems keen to distance it from the expense and bureaucracy involved in the REF.
“I think it’s a valid question,” said Robert Bowman, the academic at Queen’s University Belfast who originally calculated a £1 billion “guesstimate” on the total cost of the REF when the spending by universities is also factored in.
“They won’t state how much the universities spend. You would have thought that any sane person would ask that question. The lessons are there to be seen.”
The official REF 2014 figures for its administrative costs, produced for the Higher Education Funding Council for England in a 2015 report by policy advisory group Technopolis, put its cost to funding councils at £14 million, with the total cost an estimated £246 million when including university expenditure. The figures were controversial since there had been a pledge to reduce the £47 million cost of the RAE in 2008.
Similarly, the public sector administrative costs of the TEF will be met by the government, first through Hefce then in future through the newly formed Office for Students. But the wider costs of the time of academics, students and employers are difficult to measure.
“I think the question for the TEF will be ‘have they done any analysis into the ridiculous cost of what they saw in research?’” said Professor Bowman.
The direct £14.4 million expense of administering the REF included the costs of running the panels that assessed all the submissions, a figure that accounted for £9.3 million of the total. The TEF will feature similar panels, but include students and employers as well as academics.
As with the REF, this may not have been the original plan. Universities minister Jo Johnson spoke of avoiding a "big, bossy and bureaucratic" process when he originally announced the TEF plans last year. The introduction of more expensive panels with qualitative assessment came after concerns were raised about relying too much on metrics.
"You needed something more qualitative – and it works very well in the REF, but the more you go on the more the costs will go up,” said Nick Hillman, former special adviser to universities minister Lord Willetts and director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. “It won’t be cheap so it’s important universities think it’s worth the gamble. That’s why the link to fees is so important.”
The success of the TEF, which will remain voluntary, will be dependent on universities believing that they can do well in order to raise their fees with inflation. Any that do badly might find their income frozen by the fee cap and falling in real terms. But for those that do well, the TEF will be worth some £1 billion a year to the sector, according to the government.
The White Paper makes clear that the TEF is not designed to “constrain or prescribe” good teaching and Mr Hillman said that for the exercise to work it would have to “be a bit busy and bureaucratic. Good teaching and learning come in very different shapes and forms, and that’s a difficult thing to measure.”
The fact that students and employers as well as academics will have an influence on outcomes is an important point for the government. They argue that “excellent teaching” does not occur in a vacuum and that the impact on students’ future life chances have to be taken into account.
The concern for Professor Bowman is that universities will now be looking at how they could “game” the system, just as happens with the REF, as a way of making sure that they receive fee increases.
“We’re somewhere between a competitive market and a public service, so we end up with some overarching bureaucracy,” he said. “The Americans don’t have one, the Germans definitely don’t. It potentially makes us less competitive in the world.”