The Teaching Excellence Framework: what it is, and why we need to beat it

In November 2015, the flag-ship policy document of this government’s approach to Higher Education was released for consultation. While Andrew Lansley’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act brought reforms of the NHS that were ‘so big you could see them from space’, these reforms similarly mark a step change acceleration in the nature of governance of Higher Education. Following the important release of graduate earnings data by the Institute of Fiscal Studies this week [8], here’s why this matters.

Since the early 90s successive governments have introduced reforms that we often characterised as ‘marketisation’ or ‘commodification’ of the public sector; the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act created the arms-length funding bodies and the standardised costing of programs that we know today, while the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act introduced internal markets and purchaser-provider provision to the NHS. But, as Christopher Hood demonstrates in his classic papers [1] [2], these changes are part of a broader trend dating back at least ten years earlier that included a whole raft of calculative devices and private sector management techniques; a growing ensemble of key performance indicators, private sector governance, remuneration committees, measurable outcome controls, disaggregation, and competition. All of which has been critiqued and empirically investigated by scholars of this regime of discursive practices that seeks to align policy, to incorporate competitiveness, efficiency, consumer choice and value-for-money, while at the same time systematically and ideologically discrediting values embedded in the history of the welfare state such as access, equity, need and universalism. Michael Power furthers this critique in The Audit Society and The Risk Management of Everything [3] [4] in which we see the active role of accounting and the act of ‘making it auditable’ as reshaping organizational life. The Thatcherite concept that there is no such thing as society was extended, through active self-regulating devices of governance, from central government policy to internalized acts of control at the institutional and even at the individual level.

This meta trend was followed seamlessly through successive governments and throughout the time of Margaret Thatcher’s self-proclaimed greatest achievement – New Labour. New Labour’s pursuits of neo-liberal governance and their fetishisation of the private sector were at least as ambitious as the conservative governments of the 90s. It was the New Labour project that introduced and then trebled tuition fees in Higher Education; that saw PFIs repayments grow to around £8.6 billion, for around 700 projects, by 2007 [5]; and it was New Labour that simultaneously continued organised attacks on trade union rights.

In 2010 the Liberal-Tory government’s introduction of £9,000 tuition fees was, in the logic of neo-liberal governance at a distance, a disaster. It laid bare the unadulterated hypocrisy in their language of fairness, opportunity, and competitiveness, and it became a nexus of discontent for a new generation of students. Furthermore, simply loaning students more money does not guarantee that students will be able to pay this money back. Several years later the government’s subsequent attempts to privatise the student loan book, a major policy ambition for shrinking the state, were met with complete failure. As little as 45p in every £1 of new loans is now thought to be recoverable, and an estimated £33.3bn is likely to be received against the total £54bn outstanding student loans in real terms [6]. But how does the Teaching Excellence Framework fit into this story, and why is it so dangerous?

The privitisation of student loans remains the single biggest policy ambition for Higher Education of this government, and this will have an impact on the chancellor’s overall austerity targets through to 2020. Put simply, they know that to improve returns to the public sector, and ultimately to flog the debt, they need to get students to pay more for their education. And they need to do it without causing a riot. So they have gone back to the manual for neo-liberal governance, and this time they’re getting it right. Similarly to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) before it, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) sets in place a system of performance metrics. The power of the REF in reforming and reconstituting the very nature of research has been in the power of university league tables, and through the links to funding and student recruitment. This produces powerful anxiety in management and has generated an entire bureaucracy of compliance and strategic game playing, ‘change managers’, REF workshops, not to mention £12m a year in administrative costs to the regulator; but for all this it has allowed the government to target research output by redefining what is ‘REF-able’ and ultimately in redefining what is legitimate research. The TEF, following the November Green paper, sets out a similar vision for a psychological reconstitution of teaching, but this time with graduate earnings and the returns to the student loans company at its heart.

As soon as 2016/17 TEF metrics will be gathered to assess the ‘quality’ of teaching based on metrics in three areas, but primarily focusing on HMRC earnings data [7]. A recent Institute for Fiscal studies report [8], released only this week, represents the first systematic review of graduate earnings based on the HMRC earnings databases. This report positions itself as a ‘trial run’ for the TEF and concludes with major policy implications for government, noting that the outdated standard costings of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act incentivises Universities to run ‘cheaper’ courses such as Creative Arts that generate much lower returns to government than courses such as Medicine or Economics. The full list is below, those subjects near the bottom of the ranking should consider themselves under existential threat:

Female percentile salaries£’000 Male percentile salaries  £’000
20th 50th 90th 20th 50th 90th
Medicine 23.7 45.4 68.8 33 55.3 84.7
Economics 20.3 38.2 93.9 6.6 42 121.4
Engineering and technology 1.2 23.2 48.3 7.3 31.2 58.4
Law 4.8 26.2 62.8 3.5 30.1 79.5
Physical sciences 6.0 24.8 46.5 9.0 29.8 56.2
Education 7.6 24.4 38.6 9.7 29.6 41.8
Architecture 5.4 22.5 42.6 6.1 28.6 49.4
Subjects allied to medicine 4.2 22.1 40.6 7.1 27.9 49.1
Maths and computer science 3.3 22 53.3 6.4 26.8 57.5
Business 4.1 22 48.9 6.9 26.5 58.6
History and philosophy 2.6 23.2 50.0 2.8 26.5 64.2
Social sciences 4.4 20.5 40.9 4.5 26.2 56.8
Biological sciences 5.5 23.8 41.7 4.0 25.2 46.5
Euro languages and literature 0.0 26.4 58.1 0.0 25.0 78.1
Linguistics and Classics 5 23.2 43.2 3.9 24.1 52.9
Veterinary and agriculture 2.7 18.9 39.4 5.1 21.4 44.2
Mass communication 3.4 18.1 38.4 1.7 19.3 42.7
Creative arts 0.3 14.5 35.3 2.7 17.9 37.4


The above report contains a number of interesting findings that will no doubt be picked up in the usual channels this week, not least the persistent gender and socio economic inequalities. But unfortunately, simply incentivising higher education towards those areas of higher income generation only serves to further entrench these deeply gendered, racialized, class differences.

It is what we count that matters, and, unlike our counter parts in economics, critical accounting scholars have long recognized that our calculative devices are programmatic. Such devices create the world in their own image, they have no detached access to truth, neutrality or objectivity, and it is the act of accounting as valorizing of a ruling ideology that ought to draw our critical attention. We have an active choice how we allocate our vast collective resources. We do not need to govern our society in the service of private profits.

But that choice is not the choice of the individual consumer constituted within a system in which such measures are reified, and neither can activism be isolated to the localised, internalising acts of resistance that in fact constitute the strength of the neo-liberal model. Of important and sobering further reading to anyone who wishes to treat ‘free education’ as a single issue campaign is the empirical Foucauldian analysis of power in the failed attempts by US Law schools to boycott their rankings systems authored by Sauder and Espeland (2009) [9]. We need a coordinated socialist response that attends to the intersections within the student movement and between this and other arenas of struggle, this needs to be applied to our practice, this needs to be applied to our perspectives, and this needs to be applied to our actions in every moment. We must seek, in the end, not to influence government on isolated issues but to bring down the neo-liberal project that frames both the right and the left of British party political thinking.

James Moran, writing for Socialist Students

References and further reading:










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