Could the government’s teaching excellence framework rate as few as 10 or 20 per cent of England’s universities as excellent and risk sending a message overseas that many of its institutions are substandard? Are there risks from linking the TEF to fee rises? Has the government thought through possible “perverse incentives” arising from including, or leaving out, certain key metrics?
Senior figures at Coventry University are among those who have been worrying about those questions.
The university might be expected to be an enthusiastic advocate of the government’s plans for a TEF paving the way to undergraduate tuition fee rises, especially as National Student Survey scores are likely to form part of the TEF mix.
Coventry was joint 13th highest in the UK on 2015 NSS scores, which would seem to give it a good chance of meeting the required TEF standard and being able to raise fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, as the government has proposed.
But the concerns of John Latham, the university’s vice-chancellor, and Ian Dunn, deputy vice-chancellor (student experience), shoot to the surface when asked if the government has the right idea in linking the framework with fee rises.
“I think it’s daft, basically,” said Mr Dunn. “I think it’s stupid,” Professor Latham added, when the pair, both Coventry graduates, spoke to Times Higher Education.
For Mr Dunn, it would make more sense if the TEF evaluated an institution’s individual courses, rather than awarding a judgement to the institution as a whole.
“At the moment it looks like it’s going to be the whole university,” he said. “And no university can possibly claim that all of its courses are excellent.”
If students end up being charged higher fees on a course where, for example, NSS scores are poor, that “makes us look a bit silly”, Mr Dunn argued.
He suggested that instead of fee rises, the TEF should be linked to “some project-led innovation fund that if you have a certain level of excellent courses, you can bid into”.
Discussions about the TEF are taking place across the sector, with higher education currently working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England via development sessions on the framework. The government is to publish a Green Paper outlining more detailed plans for a TEF later in the autumn.
Teaching innovator remains wary
In many ways, Coventry looks like the kind of institution the government would like as an advocate for its TEF. The university has been a notable teaching innovator in launching Coventry University College, a lower-fee offshoot offering options including evening and weekend study for students in work or with caring commitments.
Professor Latham is not agitating for higher fees in the short term. The current £9,000 cap “in many ways will drive efficiency”, he said.
He added that Coventry has “at least another couple of years of differentiated fees [where not all courses charge the £9,000 maximum] within the system as it stands at the moment”.
Although Professor Latham believed the “concept of having something that measures teaching excellence is good”, he said the government should really “take the time to get it right”.
The present timescale – with results from the first TEF needed in time for institutions to set their fees for 2017-18 – is a cause for concern in his eyes.
“The danger is if you introduce something and it has no credibility, it has no value. It doesn’t matter if you reintroduce it later on, you can never get that back. It will always be remembered as the thing that didn’t work,” Professor Latham said.
He added: “The traditional approach is there’s a pilot…Why don’t we have a pilot that has no impact while we actually improve what it is we’re doing?”
Mr Dunn said of the first incarnation of the framework: “If the ‘TEF 1’ – I think ‘TEF lite’ has gone and TEF 1 is now the terminology – is allowed to develop over time to become something that is more useful and is about learning gain, then that’s great.”
The issue of which metrics will be included or excluded is another potentially problematic one.
Professor Latham raised the question of whether employability measures will be used, adding that the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey – which looks at types of employment and earnings of an institution’s graduates six months after they leave – is “being spoken about [as] not being in” the TEF.
Mixed messages on careers?
He argued that the absence of employability measures could make universities think “employability isn’t as important any more”. “Or even worse, actually,” added Mr Dunn, the government could use tax data with Student Loans Company information on student earnings instead of the DLHE and “look at what people are earning three years out”.
This might mean an institution looking at earnings figures for a course such as nursing and deciding it “brings our data down so we’ll get out of nursing. That’s a ridiculous situation.”
Mr Dunn also highlighted potential problems around universities being judged substandard by the TEF. He said there were “rumours around that only a portion of institutions will be allowed to be excellent – whether it’s 10 per cent or 20 per cent – I just don’t know whether they [the government] have thought through what the message…is to the international community”.
He worried about a message being sent out that “only 10 per cent of British universities are excellent at teaching”. International students might ask, he continued: “Why should I go there then? I’ll go to Australia or to the US.”
On other policy areas, Mr Dunn also has concerns about the government’s decision to scrap student maintenance grants and replace them with loans.
“There are people out there for whom [debt] is incredibly important and therefore the grant bit rather than loan is important,” he said.
“In a civilised society where we’ve got this number of people going into higher education, we ought to be able to support the least well off to have the chance,” he added.
On Coventry University College, Mr Dunn said this year’s first NSS results, although based on a small cohort, were “as high as the university”.
Professor Latham added that by offering evening and weekend teaching for those who might otherwise be shut out of higher education, “it’s widening participation – but it’s also addressing different aspects of what widening participation is”.
Can those aspects of student experience be reflected in the TEF? We will have to wait until later in the autumn and the government’s Green Paper for the first answers.