Last July I wrote that, while I was a strong supporter of the aims of the Higher Education and Research Bill, I had some concerns about the details. Having sat and listened carefully to Jo Johnson’s speech to university leaders last Friday, I was genuinely convinced that he has listened to those who provided detailed critiques of the bill.
Indeed, I think that was the overwhelming feeling among his audience: this was a minister who listened and then tried to accommodate the concerns of critics. While of course there are some aspects of the bill that I still have reservations about, I am now persuaded that this is now a bill that I can fully support.
Not only has the government provided welcome and sensible safeguards to moderate the powers of the Office for Students, particularly with respect to standards and the revocation of degree-awarding powers, it has gone further. By enshrining in law, for the first time ever, broad-based protections for institutional autonomy, academic freedom, dual support and the Haldane principle, Johnson has ensured that this bill will be an historically significant document.
Make no mistake: this represents a landmark stand in defence of university freedom at a time when it is globally under threat.
The amendments, though, are far more than a simple tidying-up exercise or maintenance of the status quo. In a whole host of areas, not least in the new proposals on accelerated degrees and credit transfer, they take meaningful action to support social mobility, focus on students and ensure that anyone with the capability to do so can truly benefit from a university education.
The minister also made a welcome announcement on Friday about the teaching excellence framework (TEF). I have been a supporter of the TEF since its conception – and, like almost every other English university, Exeter is currently taking part in the first round of assessments.
I believe that it will provide a much-needed counterbalance to the research excellence framework (REF), allowing us to restore teaching to its true place in the university, as a genuinely equal and inextricably intertwined partner to research. And I, like every other member of the Universities UK board, support the link between an effective TEF and tuition fees. To provide the best quality education and student experience in our universities, it is essential that we are allowed to maintain our fees in line with inflation – but it is entirely reasonable of the government to demand in exchange that we are providing a high-quality education.
Some of the most controversial aspects of the TEF are, in reality, essential to its success. Genuine, clear differentiation is critical if we are truly to incentivise teaching – though the government’s commitment that there will be no arbitrary quota on the number who can get the highest rating is vital, as the TEF guidance spells out. There is clear evidence – for example in the recent report on Moments of Choice – that simply providing more and more complex information, by itself, does not help to narrow the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged. And those decrying the focus on outcomes would do well to consider the investment that students now make in their higher education and their reasonable expectations of tangible return in highly skilled employment.
The bill itself, of course, says very little about the TEF. This is not a weakness, but a strength. Its counterpart, the REF, was first designed as the research selectivity exercise by no less an intellect than Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Despite that, it has undergone numerous reviews and alterations over the years to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. This essential evolution has been possible only because its details are not frozen in aspic by primary legislation.
The bill gives the right legislative framework for us to continue to work with the government to create the effective TEF that we all want. I believe that it would be entirely wrong to add additional clauses about the TEF in the bill, however well meaning.
Attempts to constrain the development of metrics, ratings or modes of assessment would surely be regretted in the years to come. Of course, there are ongoing design questions about the TEF, and I remain strongly of the view that absolute performance on the metrics must be taken into account by the TEF panel as they evaluate the benchmarked data. But the government has repeatedly shown its willingness to listen and act, most recently in its commitment to a genuine lessons-learned exercise and an additional year of piloting.
Such dialogue is the way to ensure that the TEF develops into an effective measure of teaching excellence.
In the current age of uncertainty, the Higher Education and Research Bill is needed now more than ever. Now that the government has listened to critics of the bill and accepted the majority of amendments suggested by universities, I hope that it can be passed as soon as possible.
Sir Steve Smith is vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter.