Introduced in 2017, the TEF purports to rate university teaching, awarding each institution a gold, silver or bronze medal. In practice, the metrics used have nothing to do with teaching – they relate instead to graduate employment rates, retention rates and scores on the National Student Survey. The idiocy of TEF has led to world-class institutions such as the London School of Economics and the University of Southampton receiving bronze awards. In common with other performance measures, TEF will encourage universities to find ways of gaming the results while doing nothing to improve the quality of teaching.
A career in university teaching is now precarious. Many universities, including renowned names such as the University of Manchester, have been saving costs by making academic staff redundant. Recently qualified PhD graduates and postdocs are hired at low pay on fixed-term teaching or research contracts, where they may remain for years, moving from institution to institution. They provide a cheap source of labour in universities where the vice-chancellor may be earning a six-figure sum. We believe that the system of short-term contracts is indefensible, and does a disservice to students as well as to academics.
The government’s Higher Education and Research Act, passed in 2017, makes it easier for profit-making institutions to offer degree courses. At a time when the number of 18-year olds has fallen, competition for students is already tough: the introduction of private providers risks damaging the sector as a whole by offering lower-quality, cut-price courses in selected subjects. Teaching at such institutions will not be backed by the strong research offering in our public universities. The UK’s universities have an excellent worldwide reputation: opening the sector to private providers can only dent that reputation.