Some of England’s most prestigious universities are considering whether to opt out of the teaching excellence framework (TEF), Times Higher Education can reveal.
A number of Russell Group vice-chancellors are thought to doubt whether the financial benefits of inflationary fee increases will outweigh the burden of participation in the second stage of the TEF, during which providers will be assessed according to their performance on student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment, as well as through institutional submissions.
There are also concerns among leading universities about the reputational damage that they would suffer if they failed to secure the top TEF rating of “outstanding”, particularly in the wake of a THE analysis that suggested that small campus universities and post-92s could outperform many of the Russell Group.
In a THE survey of the mission group’s 20 English members, only three – the universities of Bristol and York and University College London – confirmed that they would participate in the second stage of the TEF. Sixteen, including the University of Cambridge, said that they were yet to take a final decision on their involvement; the University of Oxford said it would announce its position “once engagement with the government and all relevant sector bodies is complete”.
Universities have until December to confirm whether they will take part in the exercise.
With technical details of how the TEF will operate yet to be finalised, some may be delaying confirmation of their support until the last minute in the hope of extracting from ministers the most favourable settlement on its design. One concession that the government could offer would be to drop the notion that only about one in four institutions could expect to be rated as outstanding.
But several universities hold more fundamental concerns. Oxford’s response to the TEF technical consultation says that it was “not convinced that, as currently conceived, the TEF will improve the quality of teaching across the sector, or that it will deliver more genuinely informed student choice”.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London, said he believed that some of his Russell Group counterparts had concerns about taking part in the TEF.
“I think there will be institutions that decide not to take part in year two because they fear the metrics that are selected will not be ones that are friendly towards them, and also there are not enormous benefits to them to participate,” said Professor Cooper. “There is a danger for better institutions whereby, if they get a low TEF score, it could be used against them internationally.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed that ministers should not take all universities’ participation for granted.
“I do sense the pendulum has swung back a little and that universities are checking they really do want to be in the TEF, especially when the extra income may be meagre,” Mr Hillman said. “It may still be that, in the end, the risks of staying out of the TEF look greater than the risks of being in it: for example, if international students or league tables use the results.”
Stage one of the TEF, which is based only on the results of Quality Assurance Agency reviews, will allow providers to increase their fees to £9,250 for 2017-18 only, but not participating beyond that would force institutions to lower their fees to £9,000 again.
Increased fee revenue is clearly an attractive element of the TEF for many vice-chancellors. Some expressed concern that linking TEF ratings to fees could undermine efforts to widen access and punish institutions that needed the most support. THE understands that Jo Johnson, the universities minister, did offer to drop the link in response.
However, institutions are thought to have cooled their opposition after Mr Johnson warned them that there was no other mechanism by which a fee increase would be permitted.
Any universities that opt out of the TEF may doubt that the exercise will prove financially beneficial, or may feel that they can increase recruitment to make up the shortfall in fee income.
Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, who has been appointed by the government to chair the TEF, said that, while no institutions had told him that they would not be taking part, he would be “listening very hard” to sector concerns.
“I very much hope that all universities will take part in the TEF and I think there are some really compelling reasons for them to do so, which are not just to do with levels of fees,” Professor Husbands said.
“What the TEF will do is give students a very powerful piece of additional information to inform their judgements around university and course choice, and clearly universities that are not in the TEF will be outside this.”
The Russell Group declined to comment.