When the government tripled tuition fees to £9,000 in 2010, it caused uproar across the higher education sector. This year, fees are rising again – but no one seems to be talking about it. Many universities, including Cambridge, have already increased fees to £9,250 for the 2017 cohort, and if the government’s plans go through unchallenged undergraduates could be paying £12,000 a year to go to university by the end of the next decade.
This time around, the attacks on higher education are far less immediate, and more insidious. They come in a benignly named policy called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which lies at the centre of an extensive programme of higher education reforms. Cambridge, along with universities across the UK, is currently in the process of deciding whether to participate in its second stage.
TEF consists of an additional quality assurance process which will result in participating universities being assigned an Olympic-style Gold, Silver, or Bronze rating. As a reward, universities who do best will be allowed to progressively raise tuition fees above the £9,000 fee cap while others won’t.
On paper, TEF is all about measuring, incentivising and rewarding excellent teaching in universities. In reality, the policy will raise many things, like fees and the level of artificial market competition infused into the higher education sector, but it almost certainly won’t do the same for teaching quality.
TEF is fundamentally flawed, first because it is based on spurious and ill-thought-out metrics that bear little to no relation to quality of teaching and fail to refer to any research-based and coherent framework of what ‘teaching excellence’ actually means.
TEF’s central metrics include indicators like graduate employment destinations and the crude measures of overall student satisfaction contained in the National Student Survey. To argue that these are satisfactory measures of teaching quality is absurd when we know, for instance, that a student’s employment prospects are largely influenced by factors like social background, location, gender, race and disability, rather than the teaching they received.
Student ‘satisfaction’, meanwhile, is simply not the same as learning gain. Excellent teaching should push us to challenge ourselves and our assumptions, to question the world around us and, occasionally, our own place in it. Learning is not and should not always be a comfortable experience and we should not attempt to quantify its impact by asking how ‘satisfied’ we felt with our entire university experience.
To then tie these questionable metrics to tuition fees is at the very least irresponsible, and potentially disastrous. How can we claim that TEF will benefit students when it will load graduates with even more debt, when differential fee caps between institutions risk alienating scores of potential applicants from low-income backgrounds and will send a clear message that ‘excellence’ is only open to those able and willing to pay a premium? Even though fees are ‘only’ rising by £250 next year, we know that low-income and working-class students are among the most debt-averse. If Cambridge decided to raise fees now, while other renowned universities do not, we risk trampling all over the fragile progress we have made towards making this university accessible to all prospective students according to academic potential rather than financial background.
It is not too late to stop TEF. We know that many universities are having doubts about participating but feel compelled to because of government pressure. If Cambridge decided to opt out, this could send a strong signal to policy makers to rethink.
More than 250 students, academics and alumni have now signed an open letter urging the University to opt out of TEF: not because we don’t care about nurturing and supporting great teaching, but precisely because we think students and those who teach us deserve better than this
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