The TEF: what is it, and why should we oppose it?

The Universities minister, Jo Johnson, delivered a speech on 1st July 2015 at the Universities UK Annual Conference [1] laying out plans to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework (or the TEF) in England. Johnson described the motivation behind the TEF as follows: to create “incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect.” Here is the list of Jo Johnson’s aims for the TEF:

  • to ensure all students receive an excellent teaching experience that encourages original thinking, drives up engagement and prepares them for the world of work
  • to build a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as great researchers
  • to stimulate a diverse HE market and provide students with the information they need to judge teaching quality – in the same way they can already compare a faculty’s research rating
  • to recognize those institutions that do the most to welcome students from a range of backgrounds and support their retention and progression to further study or a graduate job

In short, the Tories have framed the TEF as an initiative to drive up the quality of teaching in universities, creating a better value for money consumer experience – the customers being students as they have been re-positioned in the fee regime.

What exactly is the TEF?

Some of the confusion surrounding exactly what the TEF is precisely because of the heavy handed use of value for money rhetoric every time the framework is publicly mentioned by the Tories. More details of the TEF are expected to be published in a Green Paper in mid-October (so literally any day now), but so far, this is what the TEF is understood to be:

The TEF will essentially parallel the currently in place, and heavily criticised Research Excellence Framework. The REF assesses the quality of research outputs and publications via a set of metrics and awards institutions that perform well in the rankings with funding. High performing or ‘excellent’ institutions will also be granted the privilege of raising their tuition fees even further. The criteria of the REF is to demonstrate the economic and social impact of research, which critics have suggested has lead to the further commercialisation and narrowing of research, also disproportionately disadvantaging research in the arts and humanities.

The TEF is doing something similar, but its focus is upon teaching quality, rather than research quality. In Johnson’s speech, he talks about the centrality of “employment and earnings returns to education” as a positive metric for assessing the quality of teaching. In other words, departments that churn out better paid students will be granted better funding. This disastrously overlooks the fact that graduate earnings and employability tell us more about students’ socio-economic background, not the quality of teaching at universities.

Context

To understand some of the potential ulterior motives underpinning the TEF, it is useful to consider the wider contextual changes taking place to the education system. The trebling of tuition fees to £9K has created a situation where a huge amount of public money is being loaned out, 45% of which is not expected to be paid back.[2] Therefore, there is a huge shortfall that needs to be made up elsewhere. The Department for Business and Skills has had to make up £450 million from somewhere, and maintenance grants and the Disabled Students Allowance – lifelines for many students, have suffered as a consequence.

The TEF is being presented to university Vice Chancellors as an opportunity for their institutions to receive more funding in a climate of savage cuts. It coincides with the promise of future fee hikes and the removal of caps on student numbers. The TEF could therefore be seen as a way to incentivise changes to higher education that fit the Tories’ wider business-plan for Britain – and I mean a business-plan in the sense of public goods being given over to the interests of business. We are likely to see cuts to humanities courses and further prioritisation of corporate employability. Quality teaching will eventually look like quality careers advice.

How will this actually affect staff and students?

The TEF is expected to pile enormous pressure on an already overworked and precarious academic labour force. The academic freedom of departments will be reduced so as to comply with the criteria of quality teaching imposed by the market/competition metrics of the TEF. Tim O’Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh has argued that departments will undergo higher levels of bureaucratisation as staff will be expected to spent their time “filling in forms and feeding tuna fish sandwiches to visiting assessors”[3] rather than devising assessments and supporting learning. Despite emphasising the principle of deregulation in his speech, the reality is that, like the REF, the TEF is likely to introduce a massive top-down regulatory mechanism. Additionally, implicit in the promise of funding and rewards for high performing courses and departments, is also the inevitability of further future redundancies and more low-paid precarious contracts, in which already overburdened hourly paid academics will be tasked with providing more “high quality” teaching, leaving them less time to pursue their own research. Moreover, in the Trade Union bill vastly limits the capacity for workers to resist such changes through industrial action.

There is insufficient evidence to suggest that this consumer relationship even improves the quality of teaching. If it did, then at 9K fees per year, surely teaching would already be excellent? If anything, the financial pressures upon students and continued casualization of academic work does material damage to the quality of students’ education.

There is also widespread student opposition to the TEF. The National Union of Students national executive committee has passed a motion for “principled disengagement” with the TEF, elaborating that “TEF is not just superficially flawed but wrong to the core, and we can’t just tinker with it, we have to stop it.” [4]

Reactions

Frustration towards the potential for a TEF has been widespread. Students, academics and commentators have been taking to twitter to voice their opposition towards what is evidently a dangerous and harmful consolidation of the commodification of education.

t e f

t e f 2

t e f 44

t e f 33

t e f 55

The time for student-staff solidarity is now – the TEF seeks to pit the interests of staff and students against one another, creating a competitive marketplace where academics are service providers and students paying customers, rather than an atmosphere of mutual exchange and learning. The key to defeating the TEF will be widespread refusal to comply with its aims – we need to make sure Warwick is part of that.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/teaching-at-the-heart-of-the-system

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/03/22/unpaid-student-loans-funding-crisis_n_5012484.html

[3] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-ref-would-lead-time-wasted-giving-tuna-sandwiches-assessors

[4] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/nus-president-vents-anger-twitter-anti-tef-motion-passed

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#GrantsNotDebt: Lobbying Chris White

Last week, a national day of action was called by the NUS wherein students and sabbatical officers lobbied their local MPs with the intention of allowing discourse, applying pressure and expressing discontent surrounding the hostile, oppressive and frankly illogical scrapping of maintenance grants for HE students. Outrage is unsurprisingly rife amongst students as the realisation dawns upon us that those in the most financial need, incidentally the same demographic that is the least likely to  go on to become highly paid, will now realistically be graduating university with around £50,000 of debt. The aim of this day of action was to express our outright dismay and make sure that the government are aware that they cannot and will not get away with committing such offences to the detriment of higher education without a backlash from students.     

Locally, Chris White (Warwick and Leamington Conservative MP) was mandated to discuss with SU representatives whether the aforementioned policy should be opened for debate in parliament. Luke Pilot, Welfare officer for the SU stated that “Despite the mounting costs of Higher Education and the burden of debt being of huge concern to students nationwide, Chris White made it clear that he fundamentally disagreed with the principle of maintenance grants and Free Education. While he did offer to facilitate further correspondence on the issue, it is obviously disappointing that he chooses to act on personal or party-political grounds rather than listening to the views of his constituents – of whom students constitute a significant proportion.”  

This simultaneously frustrated but did not surprise members of Warwick for Free Education, who had assembled outside Chris’ office with banners and, much to the dissatisfaction of Leamington police who had been disconcertingly fast in directing their cameras towards protesters on the day, megaphones. After some predictably ridiculous rhetoric about ‘breaching the peace’ by disrupting the office (heaven forbid we make noise on a noise demo) the police reluctantly ventured inside and attempted to mediate for Chris, who decided that one ‘representative’ should be allowed to come in and talk to him. Needless to say, this was a unanimously unappealing concept, and we managed to persuade the MP that he should be coming outside to speak to us, as a non-hierarchical group and as members of a constituency that he is supposed to represent. Ha.

What we were greeted by was a laughably patronising individual who was thoroughly intent upon refusing to engage with any of us, claiming that he had already had a ‘legitimate’ conversation with members of the Student’s Union, and thus our complaints and comments did not need to be heard. After a frankly hilarious and ultimately completely useless conversation about literally nothing other than how prepared the MP was to engage in conversation, he retreated back to his office, seemingly offended, when fairly accused of preventing the poorest of students from accessing university education. After this delightful encounter, Chris’ office was entirely cleared for the day as its inhabitants became progressively more and more tired and frustrated by the noise and disruption we were creating outside.

Police presence was high and unpleasant, and the threat of arrest was mentioned but despite this spirits remained high and the general enthusiasm and energy outside the office was truly brilliant – an inspiring start to a year of fighting for free education within and beyond the confines of our university. The response from locals was overwhelmingly positive – from residents above Chris’s office waving in solidarity and passers-by sounding horns, to Labour councillors voicing their approval of our actions and the area’s residents stopping out of interest and support for free education, congratulating us, wishing us luck in our endeavours and engaging in debate.

A really valuable lesson we all took away from the demo was never to underestimate the enthusiasm and compassion of those in the wider community – our expectations of the day’s outcome were vastly exceeded and it should be kept in mind that our struggle extends far beyond that of students, and solidarity with people outside of formal academic institutions is invaluable and integral to the success of any movement.

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