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.


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]


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.





How did we Defeat TeachHigher?

Matthew Jackson


The University of Warwick has declared their decision to disband TeachHigher. Primarily, it seems, because the TeachHigher project can no longer stand for a ‘practical way of implementing and administering greater consistency of pay and support’ for postgradautes that teach in the face of so much negative press and organised resistance from staff and students across the University; or as Gillian McGratten (director of HR) has succinctly coined it, ‘distraction’.

The public meeting called by the SU was an opportunity for senior management to counter the ‘myth’ of TeachHigher which had been making its rounds on Twitter and in statements from UCU and the Hourly-Paid Tutor Group with the ‘reality’ of what TeachHigher really was from their perspective. Iroinically, this meeting actually served to compound the mysteriousness, pointlessness and inappropriateness of TeachHigher. In particular, the students and staff in attendance did a very good job of emphasising the lack of genuine consultation between hourly-paid teaching staff and the University about the project. Indeed, the Hourly-Paid Tutor Group only discovered plans for TeachHigher by sifting through the minutes of the Board of Graduate Studies. What became clear in this meeting was that senior management had never properly consulted departments, their teaching staff, or collected enough information or spoken to enough hourly-paid staff to really understand the problems that the casualised workforce at Warwick actually face. Indeed, the University’s statement acknowledged that in the discussions and feedback on the project – assumedly referring to the public SU meeting as well as written communication from UCU and the Hourly-Paid Tutor Group opposing TeachHigher – that TeachHigher was increasingly becoming viewed as a ‘vehicle for administering’ the problems rather than actually ‘achieving the outcome of fair pay for our hourly-paid teaching staff’.

I think the opposition to TeachHigher has been successful for many reasons. Firstly, the anti-TeachHigher campaign was building off an already highly politicised campus environment. The recent clashes that protesters experienced on campus with the police, as well as the public demonstrations and Warwick Summit on Protest subsequent to them, have surely heightened suspicion of the University’s position on students’ democratic rights and freedoms. TeachHigher appeared to be another step in this direction. Yet, this favourable political climate stood for nothing without the incredible number of supporters – both staff and students – who were willing to dedicate their time and energy to oppose TeachHigher. We were organised, we had done our homework, we knew our rights, we had a clear message, we shared resources, we conducted opinion polls, and collected data. We compiled all of this research and hard work into letters that were sent to the University asking them to stop TeachHigher and to enter into proper consultation and meaningful negotiations with departments, hourly-paid staff and UCU. Even though the majority of these letters were ignored – further demonstrating the lack of genuine democratic avenues of consultation at this University – this meant that university management could not hijack the public SU meeting by using market jargon to intellectually repackage what was basically a hiring franchise akin to UniTemps. We already knew it was, and had been criticising the fact for a long time.

Despite this substantial success in opposing TeachHigher, we must not lose sight of the larger issue of casualisation still at stake here. The pilot is still happening even though it will be up to departments to develop their ‘own approach based on the principles of transparency and fairness around nationally-agreed rates of pay’. The results of the scheme will be used to introduce a roll out scheme to all departments. What’s most bizarre about the most recent developments here is that the University’s new strategy is to return to an hourly-paid hiring system that was already in place prior to the proposed TeachHigher pilot, except with a renewed encouragement for departments to properly seek ways of improving the working conditions of hourly-paid staff.

Our responsibility now is to make sure that our departments and human resources honour this agreement, and we do this by adopting the same strategy with which we have defeated TeachHigher.

WE WON: TeachHigher is Dead

Today a statement from the university confirmed that we have defeated TeachHigher.

The scheme, which was little more than a badly disguised attack on vulnerable staff, is not going ahead.

This is, however, not enough. Halting the pilot is a first step towards better working conditions for hourly paid workers, it must be followed by concrete improvements. UCU are demanding that the university place hourly-paid staff on fractional contracts that give them the same pay, conditions and rights as those on open-ended contracts, and of course, we whole heartedly support them.

Fighting together, as students and staff, we can win. It is possible to reshape the university. Warwick For Free Education looks forward to the many more victories to come.

students against casualisation poster

Low Pay in HE


New research by the THE has shown that only 10% of UK Higher Education insitutions pay all staff the living wage.

Back in Febuary we revealed that the living wage is not paid to many members of Warwick staff.

“A recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that at least 241 workers who have been employed on campus for 6 months or more are not paid the living wage. This puts us a long way into the shameful group of 39 UK universities who have more than 100 staff on less than the living wage.”

Warwick says it does not recognise the living wage as a benchmark for fair pay, and instead pays a ‘bonus’ to all staff who fall below the living wage on average. This is unacceptable, and vulnerable to deliberate confusion. And so we are repeating our demand that the univeristy immediately commit to becoming a living wage employer.

In the context of TeachHigher, the a disgraceful refusal to pay a living wage is evidently not the only way in which Warwick exploits its staff. Low pay is increasingly being combined with highly casualised employment.

This issue effects both academic and non-academic staff, and we should be clear that we have solidarity with both. It is not only seminar tutors who are under attack, but also conference staff and others, who allow our univeristy to function.

We can see two clear national trends: a widespread disregard for the living wage, and increasingly precarious employment for academics.

Sadly, Warwick is at the forefront of both.

The Logo isn’t Important

John Murray. This is the opinion of an individual, not WFFE.


Warwick’s turbulent year rolls on, and the new logo is the most recent debacle.

Soon after it was announced petitions were started, and social media went into a flurry. The uni was being slammed on Facebook, and it didn’t take long for the first Nigel Thrift meme to emerge. We have even been treated to the bizarre spectacle of management PR guru, Peter Dunn, arguing with students on Overheard. Now student consultations are being offered, and some are claiming this is a victory for democracy and a sensible move on the part of university management.

They are wrong. In fact, a ‘consultation’ (rather than, say, a vote) after the fact is only a rear guard action against a 4000 strong petition. University democracy, as we have argued before, is fundamentally broken. When the SU passes policy about free education, the living wage, staff pay, fossil fuel divestment, the cost of living on campus, or our lack of confidence in Nigel Thrift we are ignored. A conversation about precisely what kind of management speak the university uses to sell our campus does nothing to change that. The fact is the university loses next to nothing if they back down on this logo. So I, for one, do not consider this a substantial democratic process – nor do I consider the removal of this new logo a substantial victory. We want student and staff democracy, not customer feedback!

I am not trying to say that the petition signing students have done anything wrong. I’ve signed it myself and encourage others to do so – it sends a strong message that students do not support the corporate image which Warwick seeks to develop. Yes, we should feel angry when we see our community being reduced to a marketing strategy designed to build a brand and attract investment. Yes, we should make clear we don’t support it, make clear that we find it ridiculous, make clear that we want to be students not consumers of the Warwick experience. But the logo is the superficial expression of deeper problems. It signifies ongoing marketisation, but it is not the most harmful result of marketisation. We should not get hung up on Warwick aubergine triangles.

Instead, we should be focusing on arguing about things which actually make a large and immediate difference to the lives of students and staff at the university. In particular, the TeachHigher program needs to be fought. Students should be standing alongside staff against the internal outsourcing of teaching and the abolition of employment contracts. Certainly in my time at Warwick there has never been a more important chance for student and staff solidarity to force a victory against management. The English department has just been the first of many departments to unanimously pass policy opposing TeachHigher, and there are rumours of a national demo in the air.

Let’s fight together on the issues that matter, rather than being distracted by the symbolic expression of marketisation. Let’s deal with the neoliberal university as it damages members of our community, rather than as it expresses itself in corporate bullshit.

TeachHigher UPDATE

This update was written by a local trade union branch member 

Significant changes have been made to the TeachHigher website since the pilot was first announced in mid-March. The word “Clients” has been changed to “Departments” and there is no longer any mention of Warwick Employment Group or what was said by the Director of WEG at the TeachHigher launch in January 2015. Management are now saying:
1) TeachHigher at Warwick will be an academic services department, not a subsidiary, though they are still intending to sell the concept as a commercial franchise to other universities in due course; 
2) The pilot will not start until October 2015 – originally, it was to start with invigilation in the summer term.
These two changes demonstrate that a unionised and organised workforce can successfully resist attempts by management to further erode our rights at work. However, there is still much to be done for the reasons outlined below.
Warwick UCU and the Hourly-Paid Working Group continue to oppose TeachHigher and believe it remains a pressing issue for all academic staff at Warwick.
·         TeachHigher will institutionalise and entrench a two-tier system of academic staffing at Warwick – further separating off hourly-paid academics from those on more secure contracts.
·         TeachHigher will put HR in the driving seat, reversing the existing balance of power between academic departments and HR. This has many worrying potential implications and represents a significant shift in the way our university is run. Teaching staff could end up being recruited by HR personnel with no academic training or specialist expertise. There is also potential for HR bypassing the preferences of departments and taking full control over the hiring process and staffing of modules. Both academic standards and departmental autonomy are therefore at risk.
·         TeachHigher will make it easier for Warwick central management to recruit ever larger numbers of hourly-paid and casualised staff to teach modules, while continuing to reduce the number of secure and permanent positions.
·         Management have failed to engage productively with Warwick UCU on TeachHigher. What little information we have received has been tardy and contradictory. TeachHigher was established (we believe) in October 2014 and it was not until six months later that management provided Warwick UCU with any information whatsoever about it. It is unacceptable that management provided Andrew Thompson, the Student Union Postgraduate Officer, with more details of the scheme than Warwick UCU, the recognised trade union for academic staff. We learnt things we did not know from reading Andrew’s blog.
We also refute management’s claim that staff contacted by TeachHigher will be no worse off than under the existing system organised via VAM (variable monthly) payroll.
The existing VAM paperwork states two things:
a) “All individuals who perform work for any department at the University of Warwick will automatically be assumed to be employees of the University” – page 1 of the HR form for a one-off lecture available on the university website.
b) “Please note, changes in employment legislation (e.g. the Part-time Working Directive, the Stakeholder PensionsLegislation) mean that there is an expectation that part-time workers should be given the same terms and conditions of service as full-time staff. Where there is a significant commitment over a full academic year, departments are asked to consider the desirability of offering a fractional appointment e.g. Teaching Fellow / Associate. Where the total payment exceeds £5,000, it should be assumed that a fractional contract will be necessary” – page 2 of the HR forms for occasional/daily-paid staff and for part-time teachers.
By contrast, the TeachHigher Temporary Worker Agreement requires “candidates” to waive their basic rights as employees. They will be offered “a contract for services” that “does not give rise to a contract of employment between you and us or between you and the Client with whom you are placed”. Moreover:
“The Client will be entitled to terminate an Assignment immediately without having to give any reason … TeachHigher or the Client may terminate any Assignment at any time without prior notice or liability”.
Warwick UCU and the hourly-paid working group wholeheartedly support improved fairness, transparency and consistency in the treatment of hourly-paid academics across departments. In fact, this has been one of the main demands of the Hourly-Paid Working Group since it was formed in 2013. Unfortunately, management have ignored a number of requests to meet with us, and have failed to respond to a letter sent over a year ago by UCU regional office to Mike Blair, Employee Relations Director. This contained 10 questions about hourly-paid Staff which the university ought to have been able to answer within a matter of days.
In criticising TeachHigher, we in no way wish to endorse the present VAM system. The rights it offers hourly-paid staff are meagre enough in theory, but we know from working with our hourly-paid members that often even these are denied in practice. We welcome management’s decision to provide more detailed job descriptions for hourly paid staff and to link their pay more explicitly to the National Framework Agreement. We would also welcome any steps taken to put an end to the illegal practice of paying different amounts for work of equal value. We would support improving hourly-paid staff’s access to CPD, though we want to be reassured that tutors will be paid for the time they spend on this.
We continue to insist that the best way to increase fairness, transparency and consistency is to place hourly-paid staff on fractional contracts, and give them the same pay, conditions and rights as those on open-ended contracts.