The government has a “variety of ways” at its disposal to link English sector funding to the teaching excellence framework, the universities minister has emphasised, after plans to make participation in the exercise compulsory were unveiled.
Jo Johnson spoke to Times Higher Education after the Department for Education published a consultation detailing the powers of England’s new regulator for higher education, the Office for Students.
The recent announcement by Theresa May, the prime minister, that tuition fees would be frozen at £9,250 in England was viewed as hobbling the TEF, given that accessing an annual inflationary uplift in fees was considered the main incentive for universities to submit to the exercise.
The consultation says that from “the launch of the OfS regulatory framework in August 2019, participation in TEF will be an ongoing registration condition” for all institutions seeking to charge maximum and basic fees. Institutions must be on the OfS register of providers if they wish to access direct public funding or student loan funding.
Mr Johnson said that “what’s at stake is just too important for there not to be a performance assessment system”.
The minister continued: “The mechanism to link funding to the performance of an institution in the TEF exists – it exists in statute, it’s there in the bill [the Higher Education and Research Act].
“As and when we want to make that link – and we said in the bill we wouldn’t do it before 2020-21 anyway – we are able to, should we wish to. And it’s not limited, by the way, to the inflationary uplift.”
Does that mean that fees could be lowered for some institutions, from their present maximum of £9,250, via the TEF?
“The ability for governments to link funding to performance in the TEF exists in statute, and there are obviously a variety of ways in which you can consider doing that,” Mr Johnson replied.
The idea of linking the allocation of teaching grant to the TEF is thought to have been mentioned by the government in recent talks with sector groups.
A consultation on fees for registering with the OfS proposes that the cost will be up to £119,700 a year for the largest universities, tapering down according to the number of students an institution enrols.
The main consultation spells out once again that the OfS will enforce a market system, driving competition, and will be hugely powerful, with a multifaceted role encompassing features including regulation, the allocation of public funding and, potentially, the awarding of its own degrees.
Will the creation of the OfS mean a shift from co-regulation between government and sector to state regulation?
Mr Johnson replied that the OfS’ powers had been set out in the act and “debated extensively” in Parliament and that the legislation had been undertaken after “extensive consultations with the sector”.
He described the OfS as “an independent regulator – it’s as equidistant from government and the sector as Hefce [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] ever was”.
Recent reports have suggested that Department for Education ministers Justine Greening and Mr Johnson were kept in the dark about the prime minister’s announcement of a “major review of university funding” and were opposed to it, having instead defended the status quo.
Is Mr Johnson still opposed to idea of having a major review?
“We always keep the system under review to ensure it’s fair and effective,” replied the minister, with his now-familiar refrain. “We’ve taken action at party conference to address a feature of the system that needed attention – so we’ve increased the [loan repayment] threshold to £25,000 – and further steps will be announced in due course.”
Limits on free speech in universities ‘could put UK innovation at risk’, says minister
Jo Johnson heralded the launch of the consultation on the Office for Students’ powers in an interview with The Times, in which he said that any university that failed to protect freedom of speech could be fined, suspended or, ultimately, deregistered by England’s new regulator.
Following concerns from the sector about the OfS’ shifting towards state regulation, did Mr Johnson’s comments on freedom of speech in universities not look like direct ministerial intervention?
“Ministers are always able to give guidance within the parameters set out in the [Higher Education and Research] Act,” he told Times Higher Education. “That’s been the case with Hefce and will continue to be the case with the OfS.”
On free speech, is Mr Johnson running the risk of policy interventions based on newspaper headlines?
It was “absolutely clear”, he said, “that the most innovative societies, the ones most likely to generate scientific breakthroughs, the most likely to be at the cutting edge of research, are those where free speech is genuinely a [feature] of their university systems.
“The UK has an extraordinary track record in this domain, and we don’t want to see that put at risk.”
In his Times interview, Mr Johnson criticised the campaign by University of Oxford students to have removed a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist founder of Rhodesia, who was a donor to Oriel College, Oxford.
Is he really saying that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is a threat to freedom of speech in universities?
“That was one example,” Mr Johnson said. “There hasn’t been a week, for quite some time, where we haven’t had one episode or another of this sort of incident encroaching on what people understand free speech to mean.
“So I think it is important that we don’t go further down the slippery slope that leads to, ultimately, a society being less innovative, less able to expose prejudice, less able to point out flaws in people’s arguments.”
He added that it was “important that students develop the capacity to be resilient, to be robust and to respond to challenges”.