Let’s do away with ‘Excellence Frameworks’ in higher education

Three main policy drives – on research, teaching quality and the promotion of social mobility – mean that in recent years, state influence over English universities has grown sharply despite direct government funding having been substantially reduced. Many may ask whether it is necessary for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, in its recent White Paper, to be increasing still further the requirements it places on higher education. Substantial withdrawal by government makes more sense.

While some of the more boastful claims about higher education (HE) in this country should be taken with a pinch of salt, broadly speaking the higher education sector is a success, not a basket-case failing industry which needs government intervention. While there are tensions as well as synergies between different HE functions, universities and colleges are surely better placed to resolve them with less government intervention rather than more.

The costly and time-consuming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in its current form should be scrapped, with any core funding to universities being based on available metrics such as citations and research degree completions rather than elaborate assessment procedures. The bulk of direct government research and knowledge transfer funding, which should anyway probably be cut back sharply, ought to be allocated on a project basis via the research councils. The end of the REF would itself tend to reduce any excessive emphasis on research, particularly in the non-scientific disciplines, which the government believes to detract from good-quality teaching.

Instead we are to redress the balance through another huge distraction, an elaborate Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In the scheme proposed, universities’ funding will ultimately depend on their ability to conform to the views of panels of alleged experts in teaching and learning. This, and the title of the exercise, are obviously meant to be some sort of mirror image of the REF. But whatever the faults of the REF, at least its panels have contained distinguished subject specialists who are widely recognised by their peers. The proposed teaching panels, attempting to adjudicate across all subject disciplines taught in an institution, will have no such credibility. The exercise will likely prove expensive, will involve yet more ‘gaming’ as institutions seek to bend rules to their advantage, and will rely heavily on backward-looking indicators rather than innovatory styles of delivery.

The government wants to link teaching quality assessment to funding, with high-rated institutions being allowed to raise fees. They will find this very difficult to implement as what constitutes good practice is difficult to define, and varies across subjects. In an era of full-cost fees it is anyway anachronistic for the government to determine what institutions charge, and the government should be looking for ways to encourage more price competition rather than continuing to control what home and EU students must pay. Universities can of course charge non-EU students what they want, which incidentally produces distortions in provision which the White Paper ignores. The issues of value for money and transparency for potential students, while clearly important, can in principle be dealt with largely by the application of consumer and competition law on the lines suggested last year by the Competition and Markets Authority.

Government concerns that students get the kind of higher education that equips them for the jobs market could be dealt with by involving higher education institutions directly in the funding of their students rather than trying to lay down best practice to very varied disciplines and institutions. A scheme suggested by Peter Ainsworth envisages universities offering contracts to their students, who agree to pay a given percentage of future earnings in return for free tuition. At the moment universities suffer no effective financial penalty for admitting weak students and failing to prepare them adequately for employment – the cost is picked up by the government when graduates are unable to repay their student loans. Making universities dependent for their future funding on producing employable graduates would force them to concentrate on genuinely improving student performance rather than attempting to manipulate statistics and writing long documents about their teaching practices – which is what the TEF will inevitably lead to.

As for the social mobility issue, the existing commitment to widening access and participation is being considerably extended to include targeting success rates by ethnicity and post-graduation careers, and universities are to be required to anonymise admission processes and provide a whole new range of statistical data. It is not clear that universities are even the appropriate locus for social engineering, even if this is thought to be a legitimate role of government. Universities can only take the products of the schools system which they find, and even if they manage to recruit the approved social mix cannot guarantee that students will succeed in their studies, still less in their post-graduation careers. Their performance on meeting targets plucked out of the air by politicians should certainly not be taken, as the White Paper explicitly threatens, as a key indicator of teaching quality – surely something else entirely. As quasi-public sector institutions most universities are already subject to the Equality Duty and this requires them to monitor their intake and differential performance anyway, in the same way as, for example, the National Health Service.

The White Paper fails to examine ways in which non-government bodies can help regulate standards. The government really does not need to be deeply involved in quality regulation. Many professional bodies in the UK accredit degree and other programmes, and their requirements are usually more rigorous than those of universities themselves. They have to be, because allowing weak candidates into the profession will ultimately damage existing professionals.

Another clear weakness of the White Paper is its parochial approach. Overseas students are rarely mentioned, nor competition with overseas institutions, not the governance and regulation of higher education in other countries. In many disciplines, non-government regulation is international. Many of the UK’s better business schools, for example, are accredited by bodies such as EQUIS and AACSB.

Many years ago, in his famous report which began the long expansion of Britain’s higher education system, the great liberal economist Lord Robbins asserted that one important function of universities was to ‘transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. Most universities would argue that they do this to some degree, but it is a task that has become much more difficult as a result of the proliferation of disciplines and the huge variety of ethnic, national and religious cultures found in the modern British university. There is little governments can, or should, do in this area. The one attempt which has been made has been the rather ham-fisted Prevent Strategy, which places obligations on universities to prevent Islamist radicalism.

But if that intervention in some respects threatens to narrow free speech within universities, there are also other threats from students themselves. The increased no-platforming of what vocal minorities regard as dangerously controversial speakers, and the US-inspired demands for ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ may, if not firmly rebutted, undermine the spirit of free enquiry which ought to drive our universities.

If the government’s role should be cut back, as I believe, it might nevertheless be useful for it to remind university governing bodies that their privileged legal and tax status comes with responsibility to ensure that all who enter higher education must assent to some common principles of open discourse. A firm statement on liberal values would be more welcome than further government meddling in higher education.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.