TEF and tuition-fee rises are not in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Why?

No.  2 in a series of guest posts by G.R. Evans

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The Secretary of State, introducing the Higher Education and Research Bill at the Second Reading, urged that ‘the teaching excellence framework is such an important part of the Bill’. But the Bill does not mention it. The new legislation will not directly affect the plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework, or decisions about raising tuition fees, both of which are being taken forward down separate tracks.

The Teaching Excellence Framework began as an announcement by Jo Johnson as the new Minister for Higher Education in a speech in July 2015, to Universities UK. It had a prominent place in the Green Paper published in November 2015 and again in the White Paper published on May 16 2016, which explained how it was to be ‘designed’ and ‘implemented’ in straightforward ‘it’s going to happen’ language of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ and a timetable making it clear that it did not depend on the coming into force of new legislation.

The TEF does not form part of the Bill because it requires no legislative change except possibly ensuring that the new Office for Students (OfS) will have powers to ‘rate’ English higher education providers ‘regarding the quality of, and the standards applied to, the higher education they provide’ (Bill s.25), with provision for ensuing adjustment of fees under Bill Schedule 2 (The Fee Limit).

Gordon Marsden pointed out in the Second Reading debate that Parliament will have no opportunity to debate the plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). He added that ‘the University and College Union and others are deeply concerned by the lack of parliamentary scrutiny built into the TEF’.

Nor does the Bill involve further consideration or review of the operation of the student loan system, which Liam Byrne described in the debate of 19 July as underpinned by a ‘Ponzi scheme’. It does not need to do so in order to achieve its purposes.

The press was quick to remark on the Ministerial Announcement days after the debate that an inflation-related increase above the previous maximum of £9,000 was to be allowed. Universities, including Manchester and Durham, were quick to advertise the new higher fees.

Can fees now be raised after a student has begun a course?

The Ministerial Announcement seemed to indicate a change to the previous understanding that the fees for a course would remain at the level they were when a student began it:

Maximum fee loans for all new students and eligible continuing students who started their full-time courses at publicly funded providers on or after 1 September 2012 will be increased by forecast inflation (2.8%) to £9,250.’

This might be open to challenge from the point of view of consumer law, since it appears to change the terms of the contract with a student after he or she has begun the course, or it might be raised as a concern with the Competition and Markets Authority.

What is the link between TEF and tuition-fee increases?

There has been widespread concern that the TEF is intended to be – or will in practice prove to be – a mechanism for raising tuition fees. In the Lords debate on 18 May Baroness Burt of Solihull promised to oppose these measures as bad for students and unnecessary for the long-term finances of universities.  The Bishop of Ely agreed.

The Ministerial Announcement expressly linked the tuition fee increases in line with inflation which it announced with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Will providers ‘game’ the TEF?

Carol Monaghan raised concerns about the potential for ‘gaming’:

Certain metrics—graduate salary or student satisfaction, for example—can drive university behaviour in a negative way, as higher education institutions are incentivised to sacrifice certain subjects in favour of areas that produce more positive results in the criteria being measured. Courses that are more challenging and perhaps score lower in student satisfaction metrics—for example, vital STEM courses—could end up being dropped because they do not measure well on the TEF metrics.

Amanda Milling was also unhappy about ‘the potential unintended consequences of institutions seeking to optimise their scores on each metric’.

Paul Blomfield insisted on 19 July that the ‘thinking’ underlying the TEF was ‘significantly underdeveloped’, and the metrics ‘deeply flawed’. ‘If the Government are going down the TEF route, let us get it was right’, he urged. The research excellence framework with which the TEF has been said to be analogous, ‘was not put together with the pace that the TEF has been put together, and nor was it put together without trialling or in a way that creates such risks’.

There has been consultation on the plans for Year 2 of the TEF, now closed.

The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions on the Bill, which can be emailed to: scrutiny@parliament.uk

A point to raise:

  • The Committee stage of the Bill will not involve scrutiny of the TEF or the raising of tuition fees. Should there be a mechanism for Parliamentary review of these proposals as distinct from ‘consultation’?

Email your comments to scrutiny@parliament.uk

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