Nottingham Trent University’s vice-chancellor is “bemused” by hostility to the government’s teaching excellence framework for England, believing that the TEF will challenge the sector’s hierarchy and the “toxic” legacy of domestic league tables.
Edward Peck also warned that if student numbers from outside the European Union are hit by government policy alongside a fall in EU student numbers arising from the Brexit vote, then Nottingham Trent “will have some questions to answer about how we…reduce our expenditure”, something that will hit the quality of education for UK students even at a “financially sound” institution.
However, Nottingham Trent has been able to double its numbers of Indian students since 2010, despite a dramatic decline in Indian recruitment across the sector during that time.
Professor Peck, who studied philosophy at the University of Bristol before a career in NHS management led to an academic career specialising in public policy, said that the perception of what makes “a really great university” has traditionally been focused on “research and longevity”.
But he believed that there was “much more to it than that”, such as “how you are addressing the green agenda, how you are taking social mobility and outreach in schools really seriously”, which were “things that academics, politicians and I think the broader community want from universities”.
He added: “If you talk about a great university, what do you mean by great? Hopefully, the TEF will start to do some broadening of people’s notions of great.”
Nottingham Trent is the “fifth biggest recruiter of home undergraduates from the lowest participation neighbourhoods in the country”, said Professor Peck, also citing one of its outreach schemes focusing on GCSE attainment for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in Nottingham.
He said students from low-participation neighbourhoods who take a sandwich course at Nottingham Trent see graduate-level employment rates of 89 per cent, with "no difference between the poorest and richest students”.
Professor Peck added: “That’s a great outcome for a cadre of young people who don’t want to be, necessarily, judges or politicians. They want to be surveyors and lab technicians – jobs that will change their lives, jobs their parents couldn’t have imagined.”
The former pro vice-chancellor at the University of Birmingham hopes that the TEF “will challenge some of those rather bizarre league tables” on domestic universities published by national newspapers.
He said the inclusion of university entry tariffs in the metrics for these league tables was “one of the most toxic parts of the system…Universities I do think are thinking twice about their social mobility strategies because of the impact of tariffs on the league tables”.
In the TEF “at least some of the data has been contextualised”, he added.
Professor Peck said he was “bemused as to why…parts of the sector have been so antagonistic to the metrics” in the TEF, calling them “decent proxies” for teaching quality.
While the TEF will determine which universities will be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation, Professor Peck predicted that “reputational gain, particularly in international markets” would be just as important for those performing well in the exercise.
Nottingham Trent has doubled its number of new enrolments from India, from 105 in 2010 to 198 this year. While that is starting from a low base, the university believes that a personal approach to recruitment – rather than a marketing-led one – has been key to bucking the sector trend.
An Indian Nottingham Trent alumnus is employed in the country to meet with prospective students and their parents, while a "Global Lounge" on campus in Nottingham provides a friendly welcome.
While that success “shows you can work around” the impact of Home Office policy, “I don’t think the policy framework has made our job any easier”, Professor Peck said.
He added that Nottingham Trent also has “significant numbers of EU students”, producing an income of “£10 million plus” per year for the university, making the future of such recruitment a key issue as Brexit unfolds.
Professor Peck said that the government’s continued refusal to remove non-EU students from its target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands was “puzzling”, particularly in light of its commitment to create a “global Britain” post-Brexit.
He warned that if non-EU students are “not a growth area and then we lose the EU students from 2018 onwards, universities like this, which is pretty financially robust, will have some questions to answer about how we think about efficiencies and how we reduce our expenditure. That would have an impact on the quality of education for UK students and indeed the quality of research and all the other stuff we’re being asked to do [by the government].”