Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The TEF's Time Has Come

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The TEF's Time Has Come

Article excerpt

Consumerist 'contracts to educate' will work where the sector's tired teaching quality strategies have failed, argues David Palfreyman

Times Higher Education's "mock TEF", published last week, certainly put the cat among the pigeons in the higher education sector. Based on the metrics the government has indicated it will use in the real teaching excellence framework, the exercise demonstrated the extent to which it could challenge the reputations of many of the existing "elite" institutions.

No doubt the exercise will also increase the lobbying from those same institutions either for the TEF to be scrapped or for its methodology to be doctored so that they come out of the exercise looking rosier. But it would be a grave mistake for the government to submit. A meaningful TEF is essential in the modern higher education environment.

There is no simple basis for determining the exact proportions of the cost of undergraduate teaching to be borne by the state, as opposed to being carried by the student: that is all a question of politics, as played out in particular nations at specific moments.

Around the world, though, the trend is for students to fund higher education via tuition fees, and this carries implications for the relationship between students, their institution and the state.

We cannot go on with a system of higher education regulation that was designed for an era of grant-funded elite provision now that we are in an age of mass higher education financed through student fee-loans.

As this marketisation of universities develops, "the provider state" becomes "the regulatory state" and acquires a new duty to ensure effective consumer protection for undergraduate students. The fact is that a student loan will probably be a student's third-largest item of lifelong expenditure, after buying a house and committing to a pension scheme. The state, rightly, wishes to encourage an effective market in this space - but, as with most markets, it needs to provide some sort of regulation to protect against failure.

The emerging market in English universities for UK and EU undergraduates is not without precedent - it is much like the one already operated enthusiastically and lucratively since the 1980s for international students, or the one created by the very profitable product line of postgraduate taught courses.

The current mechanisms in place to measure quality, teaching and learning and the student experience seem largely to have failed to prevent a decline in the quantity and quality of undergraduate teaching at the chalkface. That's why the government is right to develop the TEF - not least as a counter to the research excellence framework, which has distorted the incentives inside universities away from teaching.

But left to the producer-oriented higher education industry, the TEF would risk becoming just another forgotten acronym, recycling the same tired quality-assessment and quality-enhancement ideas and failing to tackle the baked-in information asymmetry that exists in the transaction between universities and students, leaving students dangerously unclear about the real-world value of what they are spending such large sums on. …

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