Better teaching in HE – at what price and who pays?


This month Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, announced a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for Higher Education. This was initially indicated in the Chancellor’s productivity plan – Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation.

The main aims are not controversial and are no different to previous HE policies in terms of widening participation and delivering value for money for both taxpayers and students. What is different is a new focus on creating incentives to encourage excellence in teaching in a similar fashion to how research is intensively promoted. All of this will come at a cost – but who will be worse off?

The government plans to further boost access to HE by removing the cap and increasing the amount of money available to students in England from low and middle incomes to help with the cost of living. This is being done by replacing maintenance grants with maintenance loans for new students, and support rising to £8,200 a year for those studying away from home and outside London. It will be the highest ever level of support and will come entirely as an income-dependent loan, paid back only when their earnings rise above £21,000 a year.

At the same time, the government has signalled their intent to make students meet more of the costs of their degrees, as returns for individuals with a degree are on average higher over a lifetime. It is claimed that this change would make the student loan book more affordable and less of a burden for the taxpayer.

It is hoped that the planned introduction of a TEF would improve incentives for HE institutions to provide better teaching, mirroring those incentives available for research.  Institutions that choose to offer better teaching would be given the opportunity to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18. Not exactly a win-win for prospective students who will also see maintenance grants replaced by maintenance loans.

Johnson has refused to rule out a rise in tuition fees, or whether TEF would be linked to the pricing of courses, instead he said the government were “committed to continuing to ensure that we have a stable, sustainable, funding regime for universities and higher education institutions” and that they would “continue to ensure there is a fair balance of interests representing taxpayers and students alike.”

A recent HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey showed that only 41% of undergraduates think they have received ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money from their course. With the CMA having advised HE providers to make available information to help inform their decision on where to study to meet the requirements of consumer law, students will feel a new sense of empowerment and universities will have to increasingly engage with students as consumers.

With no clear understanding as to who will pay the price for the improvements and ongoing funding problem in the sector, for the time being at least it may be the UKs HE reputation that suffers.