The details of how the government proposes to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to monitor the quality of teaching at universities have been revealed in a new green paper on higher education.
The paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, sets out how those universities which provide excellent teaching, and give the best employment prospects to their graduates, will be able to raise their fees higher than the current maximum of £9,000, in line with inflation.
Alongside the Teaching Excellence Framework, the paper launches a consultation on a range of issues including efforts to raise the number of disadvantaged students attending university and the processes for establishing new universities. It also proposes the merger of two existing bodies – the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access – to create a new Office for Students.
As this is a green paper, rather than a white paper, there will still be scope for revision before these changes appear in an expected Higher Education Bill in the next parliamentary session.
Launching the green paper, the universities minister Jo Johnson said:
Our ambition is to drive up the quality of teaching in our universities to ensure students and taxpayers get value for money and employers get graduates with the skills they need.
Different levels of excellence
The government seeks to do this through creating stronger incentives for excellent teaching and providing students with more information about their courses, through the new TEF. This will evolve throughout the life of the current parliament, becoming more sophisticated as it progresses.
The first year of the TEF, which will launch in 2016-17, will be a streamlined approach based on a quality assessment review resulting in the award of “TEF Level 1”. This will be used to inform tuition fee rises for the following year, for students starting in September 2017.
This “pilot” TEF is not a high hurdle to jump which means most of the sector would be eligible to raise fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, indicating the government is now more relaxed than it had been previously about controlling the number of universities allowed to raise fees.
From the second year onward, higher TEF Levels of 2, 3 and 4 will be available for universities to apply for. A technical consultation will take place in 2016 to work out the detail of these levels.
The green paper defines teaching excellence as: teaching quality, learning environment, student outcomes and learning gain. The TEF will therefore provide applicants with two types of information: not only on the type of teaching and learning experience they can expect on the course, but also their likely career paths after graduation. To achieve this, the TEF will need to involve a range of measures that span assessment of student satisfaction, their dropout rates from courses and their job prospects.
Breaking teaching down by subject
The assessment of all this will involve expert panels who will review the metrics and evidence supplied by the institution and make a judgement as to which TEF level to award. The panels will include academics, students and employer representatives.
Initially, the TEF results will only be institution wide – not broken down by departments. This limitation means the TEF will not appreciate the differentiation both between and within institutions. To address this, the green paper proposes the eventual creation of panels for each discipline area (similar to the units of assessment in the Research Excellence Framework, which assess academic research) which would allow comparisons to be made between subject areas and courses at different universities.
The TEF will also be used to encourage universities to issue Grade Point Average (GPA) scores alongside the traditional degree classifications of a first or 2:1. The government is encouraging GPAs – to be awarded through a 13-point scale – as it says they provide employers more granular information on the performance of graduates across their degree, rather than just in final exams.
Could fees go higher?
Universities who apply and obtain the highest TEF levels would be rewarded with being allowed to further raise their fees – in line with inflation – in future years.
But considering the current low inflation rate in the UK, we are not talking about large increases. This may lead to pressure to allow fees to rise above inflation to give universities more of an incentive to take part in the TEF. The current Conservative government has remained silent on ruling out fee rises above inflation during this parliament.
The green paper does propose giving the secretary of state a new “power to set tuition fee caps”. The undergraduate fee level of a maximum £9,000 per year is currently decided by a vote in parliament so transferring this to ministers would make it easier for governments to raise fees in the future.
The TEF is just one of a raft of changes to the higher education architecture the government has proposed, and the sector will no doubt be vocal in its dialogue with the government during the consultation period, which ends on January 15.
Andrew Gunn receives funding from Worldwide Universities Network, the British Council, the UK Higher Education Academy and the UK Quality Assurance Agency.