Mike Watson singled out the Teaching Excellence Framework for criticism on WednesdayParliament TV

The government’s plans to link the fees that universities can charge with teaching quality came under attack in the House of Lords this week, as the Higher Education Bill continues its turbulent passage through parliament.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) allows participating universities to raise fees in line with inflation, and will also see institutions being awarded gold, silver and bronze ratings. Eventually, these gold, silver and bronze awards will dictate the fee limit a university is allowed to charge, with the highest rated being permitted to charge higher fees.

On Wednesday, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, the Labour Party’s education spokesman in the House of Lords, spoke against the parts of the Higher Education Bill that enable the implementation of the TEF, saying it was “a clear example of the Government’s view that the Bill is as much a question of consumerism as it is about education.”

He went on to cite the University of Cambridge’s view that links fees with teaching quality was “bound to affect student decision-making adversely and in particular it may deter students from low-income families from applying to the best universities”, saying that he remained “unconvinced” of the government’s commitment to improving social mobility.

The theme of social mobility was picked up by Baroness Deech, the Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, who said that allowing the top-rated universities – in her estimation, likely to be Oxbridge and other Russell Group institutions – to charge higher fees would create a “reinforcing division” between them and other universities.

The proposals to rate universities as either gold, silver or bronze were also criticised, with the Liberal Democrats’ higher education spokeswoman, Baroness Garden of Frognal calling it “extraordinarily damaging”, while Watson said it “will undermine the sector’s reputation both within the UK and overseas”.

“Universities deemed to be bronze will have been independently quality assured and have met all expectations of a good provider,” he explained, “but that is not how it will appear to those outside, whether in the UK or, indeed, further afield.”

The proposals for a gold, silver and bronze rating system also drew criticism from the government’s benches, Lord Lucas, who has previously called it “a ranking system for turkeys”, saying that ratings to universities as a whole was antithetical to “getting more information out there to enable students to evaluate the quality of teaching that they will experience at university.”

“If someone is choosing a university,” he said, “they will ​look at what is going on on a course. They will not experience the university quality of teaching; they will experience what is going on on a course. That is the level at which they need data. Nor do they need the Government to say, ‘This is a bronze-level course.’ They need the data to make their own judgment because different things matter to different students.”

The TEF has drawn widespread criticism for the way in which it proposes to measure teaching quality, with student satisfaction determined by the National Student Survey (NSS) likely to be an integral metric. This has led to calls from the National Union of Students for students to boycott the NSS. CUSU have asked Cambridge finalists to hold off on responding to the survey, with CUSU Council set to debate a motion for supporting and coordinating a boycott on Monday.

However, Lord Willetts defended the proposed metrics saying: “These are not perfect measures. We are on a journey, and I look forward to these metrics being revised and replaced by superior metrics in the future. They are not as bad as we have heard in some of the caricatures of them, and in my experience, if we wait until we have a perfect indicator and then start using it, we will have a very long wait.”

The TEF is the latest in a succession of reforms to higher education to come under attack in the Lords. On 9th January, the government was defeated on reforms that would have granted for-profit colleges the right to award degrees. The Lords will continue to debate the Higher Education Bill on Monday.