Rejecting the TEF could see Cambridge spurn a fee increaseSimon Lock

The University of Cambridge is among a number of the country’s elite universities considering whether to opt out of the government’s teaching excellence framework (TEF), according to Times Higher Education (THE).

Were the University to choose not to participate in the next stage of the TEF – a decision they have until December to make – it would mean that it would not be permitted to charge tuition fees in excess of £9,000 beyond the end of the 2017/18 academic year, as the TEF is the mechanism by which the government means to tie higher fees to better teaching standards.

Cambridge was one of 16 English Russell Group members that told THE that they were yet to reach a final decision on whether they would continue to take part in the TEF, while only three (Bristol, York, and UCL) confirmed they would participate.

The TEF is a scheme being rolled out by the government that will attempt to assess and monitor the standard of teaching on offer to students at universities up and down the country, using criteria such as levels of student satisfaction, student retention, and graduate employment.

In return for their participation, universities can hope to boost their reputation if they are rated well by the TEF, which will in turn permit them to charge tuition fees over £9,000 that will continue to rise in line with inflation.

Part one of the TEF (TEF1), which included making it easier to set up “high quality” universities and pushed for an increase in teaching quality, was released as a government White Paper in May this year. Consultation for part two (TEF2) took place from May until July.

“Cambridge is participating in TEF1 but the University has made no decision as to whether it will participate in TEF2 and we will not be making a decision until the publication of the Government's response to the consultation on TEF2,” a University spokesperson told Varsity.

The hesitance of Cambridge and other Russell Group universities to take part in the new framework beyond its first stage is thought to be due to concerns that the TEF will shake up which institutions are perceived as the nation’s best.

In June, THE modelled how 120 universities would fare under the TEF, with Cambridge coming in twelfth place – still the highest ranked Russell Group institution, but a far cry from its typical place at the top of most league tables.

A fee rise may be pushed back if the TEF is rejectedLouis Ashworth

Earlier this summer, it was announced that universities – including Cambridge – would be able to charge fees of £9,250 per year from the 2017/18 academic year, provided that their quality could be assured by the latest reviews from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), a standards-checking agency that has existed since 1997.

This was as a result of the first stage of the TEF’s roll-out, under which there was only one rating available to participating universities – ‘meets expectations’, a standard that all institutions taking part were able to assure.

However, in order for universities such as Cambridge to continue to charge higher fees after the end of the 2017/18 academic year, they will have to subscribe to the second stage of the TEF, which will see universities assessed by criteria, the technicalities of which are yet to be fully finalised, and which will be revised and examined under plans that extend up until 2020.

Furthermore, under the second stage of the framework, the government will be able to assign universities one of three certifications – ‘meets expectations’, ‘excellent’, and ‘outstanding’. There will be no difference in the fees universities with difference ratings will be able to charge. So long as they meet the standards to be at least rated at ‘meets expectations’ they will be able to continue to raise fees to levels tied to inflation.

The different ratings do, however, mean that there will be an additional teaching-centric measure by which universities’ reputations may be enhanced or diminished. This stands in contrast to current league tables, such as the QS World University Rankings and the THE World University Rankings, which use methodologies that weigh factors other than teaching more heavily.

For instance, ‘teaching’ accounts for 30 per cent of a university’s THE score, while ‘research’ and ‘citations’ combine for 60 per cent. In the QS table’s methodology, the measure that best matches the description of assessing teaching standards is ‘student-to-faculty ratio’, which accounts for just 20 per cent of an institution’s score.

New assessments threaten to disrupt rankings

All of that would be fine for universities currently regarded as ‘elite’, were it not for the possibility that the TEF may not be too favourable to them – THE modelling of the framework suggests that Loughborough, Aston, and De Montfort will lead the way in terms of the TEF’s criteria. Some Russell Group members may lose out on an ‘outstanding’ rating, depending on the number of universities the government chooses to give the topmost rating, with some suggestions that only one-in-four may receive the distinction.

This will be of concern to universities like Cambridge, who use their glowing reputations to attract students from around the world – who then pay far higher fees than home students. Approximately 20 per cent of the University’s 2015 intake were from overseas, compared to the national average of around 13 per cent. The loss of these international students could offset the benefit of higher fees for home students for the University.

Experts from the higher education field emphasised this point in response to the suggestion that some universities could abstain from further participation in the TEF.

Nick Hillman, director of the the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), told THE: “I do sense the pendulum has swung back a little and that universities are checking they really do want to be in the TEF, especially when the extra income may be meagre,” adding: “it may still be that, in the end, the risks of staying out of the TEF look greater than the risks of being in it: for example, if international students or league tables use the results.”

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said the “pendulum had swung back a little” against the TEF

Aldwyn Cooper, Vice-Chancellor of the private non-profit Regent’s University London, echoed Hillman’s thoughts, saying: “I think there will be institutions that decide not to take part in year two because they fear the metrics that are selected will not be ones that are friendly towards them, and also there are not enormous benefits to them to participate. There is a danger for better institutions whereby, if they get a low TEF score, it could be used against them internationally.”

The prospect of many of the Russell Group not taking any further part in the TEF may also stem from long-standing scepticism about it as a project.

In a response to the green paper that the framework was initially proposed under, the University of Cambridge wrote: “The Green Paper fails to demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of our universities and the reasons for the sector’s international standing”, going on to say that the aim of universities “is to help students grow into thoughtful and critical citizens, not just earners and consumers.”

Oxford were also critical, writing in June: “We recognise that it is difficult to measure teaching quality in a consistent and transparent way, given the variety of forms that teaching takes, and the different approaches, missions and profiles of individual providers. However, we continue to have concerns about the core metrics to be used to assess teaching quality, which we see as limited and incomplete.”

The man appointed by the government to chair the TEF, Chris Husbands, who is also Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, defended the scheme however. “What the TEF will do is give students a very powerful piece of additional information to inform their judgements around university and course choice, and clearly universities that are not in the TEF will be outside this,” he said.

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