Legal action warning over TEF and tuition fees link

Durham pro vice-chancellor warns that institutions would be forced to challenge a worse-than-expected judgement

November 27, 2015
Scales of justice

Universities will “all end up in court” if teaching excellence framework scores are linked to tuition fee levels, a conference has heard.

Tom Ward, pro vice-chancellor (education) at Durham University, told a Westminster Higher Education Forum event that English institutions would be forced to launch legal challenges if a worse-than-expected TEF judgement barred them from increasing their fees by the maximum amount possible.

“Who here is going to cheerfully walk away from not getting whatever this year’s version of ‘gold’ is? If it’s linked to resource, we’ll all end up in court,” Professor Ward said. “These metrics had better be very robust because there are large sums of money at stake.”

Under the proposed TEF, higher education institutions would be invited to apply for different levels of award from 2018-19, judged against a range of metrics measuring teaching quality and student outcomes, among other things. Each TEF level is set to bring with it a different tuition fee cap.

But Professor Ward argued that no metric could capture the “richness” of the student experience and that having “the person from the ministry” define what excellent teaching was could stifle innovation in teaching and learning.

“Assessment can kill the best teaching, and assessment can kill the best learning,” Professor Ward said. “It’s all fine until some panel somewhere says: ‘I’m afraid yours is a bronze, but yours is a silver, and there’s money attached to the difference.’ That’s when it goes haywire.”

Speaking at the same event, Douglas Blackstock, the interim chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said that a “high hurdle” must remain for gaining UK degree-awarding powers, despite the government’s plans to make it more straightforward for new and alternative providers to enter the market.

“Misuse” of these powers could damage the sector’s reputation and harm students too, Mr Blackstock warned.

“If you have a pop-up university that closes in four years, that degree certificate becomes worthless and affects that student’s career,” Mr Blackstock said. “A degree is for life, not just for Christmas.”

Mr Blackstock suggested that new entrants should be restricted to awarding qualifications at a lower level, or in certain subject areas, until they could demonstrate the required standards.

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