Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the government’s Green Paper on higher education, will attract a lot of comment. That’s part of the point of a green paper, after all. Yet, for all its flaws, this is not a stupid document; if one peels back the shortcomings, what’s left is a core of canny genius.
This document covers a lot of ground. In the longer term, the chapters about market flexibility may be the most significant. There are also the major structural changes: the end of HEFCE, the birth of the Office of Students, an apparent reprieve for the QAA. There’s an impressive emphasis on widening participation, a frontal assault on the degree classification system, even a section on student finance and sharia law. And the final chapter on reseearch funding is worth a look.
But I’ll leave some of that for another day. In this post I’ll focus solely on the Green Paper’s proposals for a Teaching Excellence Framework.
What was the problem?
The Green Paper’s central premise is that too many universities are prioritizing research at the expense of teaching.
That’s debatable; it’s not what I see in my patch, nor does the Green Paper do much more than assert the position. In fact there’s rather too little evidence and too much righteous indignation. It’s saying to university leaders, in effect: we sorted out the income stream for you, and now you’re spending the money on research, and getting distracted by global league tables. But if we accept the premise – just for a minute, just for the sake of argument – we can appreciate the problem the Green Paper is addressing.
The challenge, in short, is to engineer a system that will convince university managers to redirect institutional resources from research to teaching, at a time when the state has no more money to throw at the sector.
The pot of reputational gold
The REF earns money for universities, in the form of ‘quality-related’ payments. For the TEF, the Green Paper shamelessly exploits the undone business from the last round of reform. The failure to index £9000 fees to inflation was a weak act of political neglect, and had to be fixed one way or another.
So this proposal effects a fix, with strings attached. The arrangements for next year are transitional – and, given the neglible rate of inflation, barely consequential – so let’s focus on the longer term. As I read the proposals (and cf. here the visualization at wonkhe.com), the system will look something like this.
- Any university that earns the QAA kitemark – as almost all established universities do – will be permitted to increase its maximum fees, in any year, by a percentage of the rate of inflation. That percentage remains to be determined; I’d bet it will be at least 50 per cent.
- In addition, once every five years or so each university will have the opportunity to apply for recognition for higher levels of teaching quality, which will earn the right to increase fees up to the full rate of inflation. This will be a tougher, optional test.
So here’s the clever bit. The financial benefit of applying for the higher levels of recogntion will not warrant the considerable expense, in terms of buureacracy and changes in institutional practices. Yet, while there will be a temptation to opt out, settling for the Level 1 kitemark, the Green Paper is knowingly leveraging ‘reputational advantage’ for all it’s worth.
And in this context, how many vice-chancellors will be prepared to opt out? What sign would that send to stakeholders? To prospective students? I’d call this ‘Johnson’s choice’.
The dimensions of quality
What constitutes success? Some of the measures are expected: student satisfaction, graduate employment rates, retention rates. That’s all fine; these measures command a level of confidence across the sector.
But there’s more: rather a lot more. Much remains to be determined, but there’s some interesting discussion in the Green Paper about learning gain, and also a sensible recognition of associated widening participation implications. Students from lower-performing schools will, on average, gain on those from higher-perfoming schools, if A-Level results are set against degree results. That, by the way, is a courageous thing for a Conservative government to admit.
There’s also an acknowledgement that contact hours can be deceptive; group sizes also matter. And there’s a welcome concern with who’s doing the teaching. The Green Paper targets the prevailing disparity of esteem between outstanding researchers and outstanding teachers. And it asserts that lecturers on full-time contracts, properly trained, will be more effective than casuals. Indeed.
Perhaps most intriguingly, I note the recurrence of a couple of my favourite words: ‘engagement’ and ‘enhancement’. It won’t be easy to assess all this stuff, but the intention is welcome.
The nightmare scenario
Could it all go wrong? The White Paper’s gamble, as I see it, is that a critical mass of established universities will seek the higher levels of TEF recognition, and that standards of education will rise as a result.
But if a significant number of powerful universities opt-out – reasoning that concentrating on research income, international reputation and international students makes more sense than scrabbling after higher-level TEF recognition – we could get some perverse outcomes. Let’s say, for example, that the LSE (second from bottom in the 2015 NSS) decides not to bother, while Liverpool Hope (seventh from top) earns the top TEF grade. That would leave the LSE with lower fees than Liverpool Hope, and the sector in danger of collapsing into a credibility gap.
In this context, the Russell Group’s response to the Green Paper must surely carry some weight.
‘Reducing regulation’: really?
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about universities winning independence from government regulation. The Green Paper, whatever noises it makes to the contrary, calls a halt to all of that. It may not fully succeed in putting students at the heart of the system – the goal it inherits from its forebears – but it definitely puts the state right back into the mix.