Last month’s announcement of a name change for the UK’s teaching excellence framework is welcome as far as it goes. “Teaching excellence and student outcomes framework” does at least capture the fact that, as the government puts it, “the previous name could be misinterpreted as implying a narrow focus on teaching as it is conducted in lecture halls and seminar rooms, rather than the broad-based assessment of teaching and outcomes that is assessed by TEF.” But if the TEF’s name is now less misleading, its incentives are still miscast.
Ministers are fond of referring to higher education as one of the dwindling number of sectors in which the UK still “punches above its weight”. A key reason is higher education’s well-established and widely emulated system of quality assurance. External examining is only one facet; others include selective entry (so that only students capable of benefiting are admitted), validation (so that only courses that meet university and sector norms are approved) and periodic review (so that syllabuses and assessment methods are kept up to date).
All this good practice is encapsulated in the UK Quality Code. This builds on previous work by the Quality Assurance Agency, the Higher Education Quality Council (of which I was chief executive) and the Council for National Academic Awards. It is underpinned by considered professional judgements about the appropriateness of individual courses and qualifications.
But England’s full-cost tuition fees, the removal of the student numbers cap and the lowering of the entry barriers for new providers leave universities facing unprecedented levels of competition. The TEF is only reinforcing these pressures by providing students with accessible if crude information about quality – and the addition of a new metric based on graduate salary data from the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset will only exacerbate the problem further. As a result, quality assurance faces an existential threat, both institutionally and sector-wide.
The creation of the Office for Students reflects a belief that the surest means of raising quality lies in promoting competition, as institutions respond to the choices of the well-informed student consumer (the fact that such a creature is a chimera is ignored in the face of such ideology). Yet most people in higher education consider that the key to maintaining quality is supporting the professional urge to do better, stimulated and informed by peer processes and development. This is a fundamental difference of view that cannot be papered over.
There is also a threat at the practical level. Most universities operate in a tight marketplace. Suppose that an institution or a course gains a silver or bronze award in the TEF. Why should it continue to devote attention to the laborious, intensive and often unpopular processes of quality assurance? Would its intellectual capability not be better employed “improving” its inputs to the TEF – in so far as this lies within its power – irrespective of whether they truly reflect the quality of teaching, assessment or student effort? Better still, why not redeploy all those quality officers in the really important areas of marketing and brand management?
The proportion of first- and upper second-class degrees being awarded is on the rise. Regular surveys report that increasing numbers of academic staff feel under pressure to improve grades and/or admit weaker students. There is also concern about the growth of unconditional offers, including by many prestigious universities. At the same time, universities are diverting ever more resources that should be used to improve or maintain quality into prestigious buildings and other attention-seeking activities.
There is, admittedly, to be a “supplementary metric” on grade inflation in the TEF, but this will do precious little to mitigate the stress that greater competition – and the TEF itself – is imposing on the maintenance and improvement of quality in the conventional sense. What a pity it would be if we have to recreate the Council for National Academic Awards to do that job.
Roger Brown is the former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council.