Plans to create multiple tuition fee caps linked to different tiers of the teaching excellence framework will “increase complexity without enhancing teaching quality” and “walk right into a bureaucratic nightmare”, the higher education sector has warned the government.
Universities UK and GuildHE, the sector’s two representative organisations, are among the bodies to give a critical reception to a keystone of the government’s higher education Green Paper, in responses to a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation on the document that closed on 15 January.
The Green Paper proposes that in the second year of the TEF there will be “three or four” different award levels, each resulting in a different fee cap from 2018-19 onwards.
Although the document says these rises will not be higher than inflation, some argue that the policy could pave the way to a system of truly variable fees, in which some universities charge much more than others.
Meanwhile, senior figures in the government are expected to return to the question of whether to introduce a higher education bill to implement the Green Paper in the coming weeks after a planned Cabinet discussion on the issue was said to have been delayed. An alternative option thought to be under consideration is to tack on the required legislation to further education or business competition bills.
‘Excellent teaching is a process’
While UUK says that it welcomes the government’s “focus on teaching and learning”, it also warns: “We do not believe, however, that it is necessary or proportionate to found the objectives of the TEF on a complex system of financial incentives based on multiple fee caps linked to multiple tiers.
“This will significantly increase the burden of complexity and bureaucracy on the sector, without achieving the desired aim of enhancing teaching quality.
“We believe therefore, that the ability to increase fees by inflation should sit at a single fixed point within the TEF architecture and at such a level that requirements are proportionate to the financial returns.”
The Higher Education Academy says in its response that the TEF should include peer review, rather than being primarily metrics-focused as the government plans, and should have fewer levels than proposed by the government.
“Excellent teaching is not a destination but a dynamic and developmental process,” says the HEA.
Stephanie Marshall, the HEA chief executive, told Times Higher Education that the organisation welcomed the TEF.
But she said that the plans should return to the spirit of the original speech on it by Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, and “revisit that real concern for this being about ensuring that students get the best possible learning outcomes”.
She added: “We’re talking about a number of [fee] levels, fractional amounts on a percentage of inflation…it walks right into the territory of a bureaucratic nightmare.”
GuildHE, whose chief executive is Gordon McKenzie, former deputy director for higher education strategy and policy in BIS, says that it is “not convinced” that in year two of the TEF “it will be possible to get any significant level of [fee] differentiation because we question whether the combination of metrics and panel assessment will provide sufficient robust evidence to make such judgements.
“Further to this, we believe that four levels of TEF are too many and will lead to increased bureaucracy.”
Strong opposition to a key element of the Green Paper may add to the pressure on Mr Johnson as he tries to secure a bill to implement it in the face of opposition from others in the government concerned that legislation could run up against problems in both the House of Lords and House of Commons.
‘High stakes’ for Johnson
But pushing through changes without a bill could bring claims from critics that the government is avoiding scrutiny.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “There are quite high stakes in this for Jo Johnson.
“If he manages to get a bill that’s a great political achievement in his first ministerial post…If he fails – he has set quite a lot of store by this.”
Although the TEF could be implemented to institutional level without legislation, it is thought that any plan to gain results on a course-by-course basis would require legislation – as would the proposal to create a new regulator, the Office for Students.
Mr Hillman said that Mr Johnson would be “leaving a very big job for someone else” if he failed to secure a bill, as higher education legislation would “inevitably” be needed at some point.
On legislation, UUK says in its Green Paper response that “it is essential that reforms…are carried out in a transparent and sustainable manner”.