This briefing was prepared by the Convention for Higher Education (CHE), a non-partisan group of academics drawn from across the university sector. The CHE is deeply concerned by the damage that this bill would do to Higher Education across the UK. We appeal to all members of the Committee actively to seek, and forcefully to support, appropriate amendments to the Bill for the reasons laid out below.
1. The ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) Will Reduce, not Improve, the Quality of Education and Graduates
The Bill says little about TEF, but one of its central purposes is to create the enabling institutions for it. Given its centrality, it is alarming that the TEF is not being subjected to properly parliamentary scrutiny or ongoing oversight, but is instead being developed via a separate technical consultation. The TEF would involve measuring and grading university teaching in a similar way to university research (the Research Excellence Framework, REF), with higher TEF scores driving higher fees, though capped at inflation. Since decades of educational research has failed to develop any reliable measurement of teaching quality, there will be a heavy reliance on crude metrics.
Whatever metrics are eventually used, TEF will inevitably incentivise not excellent higher learning but rather ‘teaching to the test’. For example, the government is currently trialling examinations to measure students’ overall ‘learning gain’. If this becomes the metric for teaching excellence, universities will inevitably start coaching students on how to ace ‘learning gain’ tests. The metric will cease to measure real learning outcomes and existing subject curricula will be hollowed out, as academics are forced to turn over class time for this purpose. Students will thus learn less, not more.
Other proposed TEF metrics – notably student satisfaction – have similar pitfalls. Student ‘satisfaction’ is affected as much by the quality of student accommodation, sports clubs and bars as by teaching. Incentivising universities to boost ‘satisfaction’ will likely compel the redirection of resources away from teaching to these peripheral facilities. Moreover, academics will be discouraged from designing difficult, challenging courses or grading fairly, for fear of making students ‘dissatisfied’. Course content will be dumbed down and grade inflation – already endemic – will escalate sharply, devaluing degrees. Again, introducing TEF will mean students learn less at university.
Moreover, as academics are increasingly held accountable for students’ learning outcomes, students’ sense of responsibility for their own learning – historically a core aspect of higher education – will diminish. We are already seeing students dissatisfied with their grades suing their universities. If the TEF is introduced, an ancient system of independent student, guided by subject experts, will be supplanted by spoon-feeding – as seen in our secondary schools thanks to the rise of metrics and league tables. The result will be less independent, less resilient and less responsible graduates who are less useful employees and less capable of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship. Continue reading