On Friday 6 November a green paper outlining plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was published. Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson, announced that as early as next year, universities will be able to raise their fees higher than £9,000 if they are deemed ‘excellent’ in teaching. The proposed TEF is an extreme next step in the marketisation of education, following the Research Excellence Framework, the trebling of fees in 2010, and the scrapping of maintenance grants earlier this year.
The Research Excellence Framework almost single-handedly controls the higher education sector. Described by many as higher education’s ‘X factor’, and dishing out billions to universities every year, it has sneakily taken control of the research sphere. Universities have logically shifted their focus from teaching to research in the last 30 years, as without lucrative research, universities cannot stay afloat. The University of Edinburgh, for example, is more reliant on research grants than it is on tuition fee income. It is true that we need to get the focus back on teaching, but at what cost?
The paper contains the phrase ‘what employers want’ 35 times, and the words ‘academic’ or ‘teachers’ only twice, obscuring quality teaching as a primary concern. The main metric will be the notoriously unreliable National Student Survey, taken by students as they leave university. A narrow range of performance indicators, which will satisfy potential employers, will be what ‘excellence’ means in the TEF. Teaching that broadens and challenges our minds will become harder to find, and university education will become a training programme for the world of commerce.
This is not merely about teaching quality. Another concerning aspect of the paper suggests that ministers could raise fees without it having to go to a vote in parliament. Whatever your stance on fees, changes this dramatic deserve a proper debate and democratic process. Johnson’s paper implies that universities that support students from disadvantaged groups will score highly on the TEF. This is as good as saying ‘the government will no longer support poorer students financially, but have a pat on the back if you are a university that can afford to do this yourself!’
So what does the TEF mean for Edinburgh and Scotland? Education is a devolved issue, and technically institutions here do not have to comply with this legislation as it stems from Westminster. And of course, this only applies to ‘rest of UK’ students rather than Scottish domicile. However, with higher fees at the forefront, and wanting to compete with UK counterparts, Edinburgh will take part regardless of whether they need to or not. I have served as a sabbatical officer at EUSA for six months, and during this time the fear of the TEF around the university has been palpable. Perhaps for the first few years this will spark a well-needed prioritisation of teaching. After this, who knows? I suspect that quality processes will become no more than ticking boxes of minimum requirements… so much for excellence.
NUS’ stance seems to be that quality does not grow on fees. The only thing that grows on fees is debt. The stark reality is that if we do not fight to protect education as a public good, we will lose it forever. We will be like America, where college funds exist from birth so privileged students can attend private universities.
As the £9K generation we are at a crossroads – the uproar from students and staff about the TEF will be huge, but will it be enough to save higher education in the UK?
Image credit: dun_deagh