The incredible shrinking TEF
Once upon a time there was a clever man called Jo Johnson who fervently believed in the values of competition. So, when he became minister for universities in the government, he did everything that he could to make higher education properly competitive. He handed out university status to lots and lots of private, for-profit companies and told them that they could charge what they liked for their degree courses. But Mr Johnson was still frustrated. All the other universities in the country resolutely went on charging the same uniform fees. What could be done to change their minds?
It was then that the clever Mr Johnson came up with a new scheme. Each university would be asked to build an elaborate edifice called the teaching excellence framework. And those that built the best and strongest edifices would be awarded gold or silver status and allowed to charge those elusive higher fees.
Now, naturally, Mr Johnson wanted to make these frameworks as sturdy as possible. So he insisted that universities use only the very best materials in their construction. They were to make the joists from the National Student Survey, the beams from the student retention rates, and the nuts and bolts from the statistics on students’ final destinations.
Once the universities had finished their constructions, Mr Johnson would follow in the steps of the famous research excellence framework and appoint lots of elderly academic men to sit in judgement on each university’s teaching edifice.
But all of a sudden a big bad wolf appeared and started to blow down Mr Johnson’s framework. It rattled the beams provided by the student retention statistics and loosened the nuts and bolts of the final destination metrics. And then the wolf blew so hard at the joists of the NSS that Mr Johnson was shamefacedly forced to admit to the House of Lords that the “NSS metrics are the least important”.
All of a sudden, Mr Johnson found himself defending a rapidly crumbling edifice. But he had an ace up his sleeve. He knew that in the past many academics had drawn attention to the creaky foundations of another edifice called the REF. But when universities found out that they might, by a variety of tactics, use that REF to increase their funding, they quickly forgot their objections and happily joined the scheme.
So Mr Johnson could be confident that although his framework looked decidedly rickety, he could count on university leaders forgetting all about such jerry-building as they fought each other to obtain that moneymaking gold or silver status.
But then last week, the House of Lords looked carefully at poor Mr Johnson’s sagging edifice and decided by a vote of 263 to 211 that there was no way in which such an inadequate framework could possibly provide the basis for fee differentiation. No matter whether your TEF rating was gold, silver, bronze or purple with pink spots, you would not be allowed to charge extra fees or recruit additional students.
As we went to press, Mr Johnson was unavailable for comment but we understand that he now intends to spend more time at home with his private providers.
(That’s enough about the TEF...Ed.)