Fundamental questions about the purpose of England’s teaching excellence framework have been raised by the government’s freeze in tuition fees, while Theresa May’s apparent aim for fee differentiation steps into a “minefield”, sector figures have warned.
At the Conservative Party conference, Ms May made a series of interventions on funding, including announcing a freeze in English university fees at £9,250 – ending any prospect of the government going through with earlier plans to raise the cap to £9,500 for 2018-19. The prime minister also said that the student loan repayment threshold would be raised from £21,000 to £25,000.
Gaining permission to raise fees in line with inflation had been a key incentive for participation in the TEF. The government had planned to create a system of variable fee rises linked to the TEF, to a maximum of inflation, after an independent review of the framework in 2019.
Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said that he felt that while the fee freeze would not have an impact on the immediate future of the TEF, “it does raise further questions about the long-term future and coherence of the TEF”.
“We have already seen strong signs that [the TEF] is moving further away from measuring teaching excellence, with a focus on developing metrics that tell us nothing directly about teaching quality, such as those in the areas of graduate salaries and teaching intensity,” he said.
“This latest move signals a move away from rewarding teaching excellence. If the TEF neither measures nor rewards teaching excellence, then it is difficult to see how it will meet its primary aim of putting the development of high-quality teaching on an equal footing with the development of high-quality research.”
However, Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, said that it was “neither desirable nor likely that the fee freeze will be the end of the TEF”.
“In my view, the sector made a mistake in delaying the link between the TEF and fees and, in part, this freeze is a consequence,” Professor Peck said. “Looking forward, I would argue that if you are making an argument for value for money connected to fees then the TEF becomes more not less important.”
National newspaper reports over the weekend suggested that the government was planning a “review” of the fees system, or even a “commission”. But a source told Times Higher Education that there would be no external review and indeed no “review” of any kind – just targeted action on areas such as the repayment threshold.
However, comments by Ms May at the weekend suggest that she sees the absence of “fee differentiation” as a problem. Previous briefings to the press have suggested that some people in government want to see a system of varied fee caps across different universities, potentially determined by their graduate earnings figures (likely to be a reference to the Department for Education’s new Longitudinal Education Outcomes project).
One senior sector source suggested that there may indeed be a review, in the sense of the government carrying out an internal process of “looking seriously at other options” beyond the status quo.
Another source, a vice-chancellor, predicted that the “endgame is differentiation of fees by either cost of provision or LEO data” and that these were early skirmishes in a “major battle”.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said that this was concerning.
“Clinging on to the notion of differential fees delivered through the TEF, or in other ways, is a diversion,” she said. “Universities across the sector are not going to accept the imposition of differential fee structures on a course or institutional basis.
“Ministers would do much better working with universities and students to deliver a funding system that is sustainable rather than imposing their own version of what they think should work.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, suggested that while Ms May appears attached to fee differentiation, the idea is a “minefield” and would be “guaranteed to go wrong without proper consultation and review – and the idea of a review appears to be a mirage”.
Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, who has previously called for a Royal Commission to review the broad purpose and funding of higher education, said that the future of higher education funding was “too important a question to be lost in party politics”.
“While it is difficult to know what form any proposed review might take, it is clear that it makes no sense to look at any one part of higher education in isolation,” Sir Keith said. “What students and the country need is a proper open and independent debate about what higher education is for, who benefits and how.”