Jo Johnson unveils teaching REF plans

But minister appears to drop reference to teaching excellence framework carrying 'financial' incentives

July 1, 2015
Jo Johnson, minister
Source: PA

The government’s teaching excellence framework will include “outcome-focused” metrics and offer universities “incentives” to improve teaching, Jo Johnson has revealed.

The universities and science minister discussed plans for the TEF in England, which the Conservatives committed to in their election manifesto, in a speech to vice-chancellors and sector leaders at Universities UK in London today.

He said that introducing the TEF is “my priority as universities minister”, noting that “while we have a set of measures to reward high quality research, backed by substantial funding (the research excellence framework), there is nothing equivalent to drive up standards in teaching”.

Mr Johnson’s reference to incentives is likely to prompt speculation that the TEF could be used to usher in a system of variable tuition fees. Some in the sector believe that the government could be planning to allow fees to rise above £9,000 for those institutions that perform well in the TEF.

But Mr Johnson appeared to pull back from directly signalling such an intention, dropping an expected reference to the TEF offering universities “financial” incentives. In an excerpt from his speech briefed to the media in advance, he was to say: “There must be recognition of excellent teaching – and clear financial and reputational incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.”

But in the version of the speech that he delivered, that had been toned down to: “There must be recognition of excellent teaching - and clear incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.”

In questions following the speech, Dave Phoenix, the London South Bank University vice-chancellor, asked Mr Johnson if the TEF was likely to be linked to pricing of courses”.

The minister replied: “We will be consulting very closely on exactly how to put together a package of incentives that works for the sector. I’m not going to propose today to outline in detail the finer details of each element of an incentive package.”

In the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Johnson declined to rule out a rise in fees in this Parliament, under questioning from Labour MPs.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is keen to hear views ahead of a Green Paper in the autumn, Mr Johnson said. That indicates that the government may be planning legislation that will cover the creation of the TEF.

Describing his priorities for the coming months, Mr Johnson said that the government intends to meet a commitment by David Cameron to "double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020 from 2009 levels".

There will be a focus on "driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system, so that we ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms".

The government will also deliver "a teaching excellence framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect", Mr Johnson said.

He also said that the TEF "should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape".

That will raise concerns among universities that the TEF will replicate many of the features of cyclical review by the Quality Assurance Agency, likely to be scrapped after the launch of a separate consultation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Mr Johnson referred to David Willetts’ "recent interview with Times Higher Education", in which the former universities and science minister said that "teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education".

He also said: "I expect the TEF to include a clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics."

Asked by THE whether the metrics would focus on graduate earnings or new measures of graduate learning outcomes and how they vary between universities, Mr Johnson said: "We do want this to be outcome-focused. That's a broad principle of it, rather than focusing on the number of blackboards and the number of Sharpie pens available to students.

"But I'm not in a position, and nor would you want me to be, to say today exactly what the metrics are going to be. I would just give you a sense that we're looking to create a broad basket of indicators so that we can reflect the diversity of our higher education institutions in this country."

He added that the TEF would aim to "drive good teaching up so that it becomes excellent and to root out bad teaching".

Response to Jo Johnson's speech

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK:

“Providing a high-quality, world-leading experience for all students is central to what our universities do, and they are always seeking to improve what they offer to students. We will be considering carefully how a new Teaching Excellence Framework can best add value to all students, whatever their choice of subject or university, and whatever their background and aspirations. The challenge is how to construct a single Framework that can effectively respond to that tremendous diversity."

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance:

“We need a higher education system offering high quality teaching and learning to everyone with the ability and aspiration to go to university....This is why we call on government to maintain Student Opportunity Funding. It is the only funding awarded to universities based on the genuine added costs of recruiting and retaining widening participation students.  It has proven to be crucial not just in improving social mobility and ensuring cities and regions have access to wider, more diverse talent for growth, but also in ensuring the Treasury maximises the return on its investment in higher education."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union:

"Everyone wants to see the best teaching done in universities and the fact is that, despite fewer resources than other major academic nations, our lecturers have a world-beating reputation. That is why so many international students come here. Any government that wants to support further improvements should act to eliminate the endemic casualisation of teaching staff and work to enhance the professional status of the sector."

Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester and chair of GuildHE: 

“The UK’s modern university sector is made up of a range of universities with a range of strengths. The variety and choice offered by this diversity is attractive to students and employers and is a critical factor in the UK’s global reputation for high quality higher education. UK universities are so strong partly because they are so diverse. It is important the nation maximises the benefits to be gained from every part of the HE sector."

Anthony McClaran, Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education:

"High quality student experiences and successful student outcomes are shaped by inspirational teaching, and it is entirely right that the government should be looking at how best to achieve that excellence. The higher education sector already does much to encourage excellent teaching.  External quality reviews commend excellent approaches to teaching, make recommendations where there are weaknesses and work with universities and colleges on improvement and enhancement.  The time is right to look at how all this can be developed... [and] together with the sector, QAA will work closely with BIS as it develop its proposals through the forthcoming consultation."

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group:

“Our universities use a wide range of measures to help us ensure the quality of undergraduate teaching and we continue to invest millions of pounds in improving the teaching, facilities and services available to our students. Our aim is to instil both independence and rigour of thought and learning, producing capable, self-motivated graduates of the highest standard who succeed in a global employment market."

Read Mr Johnson's speech in full.

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