Birmingham Socialist Students has confirmed that there will be an announcement tomorrow (Thursday) that the University of Birmingham has been awarded ‘gold’ in the second round of the Teaching Excellence Framework (aka ‘the TEF’). No doubt, the University senior management team will be the first to take credit for these results that are, in fact, the result of the hard work of the thousands of teaching staff, many of whom are teaching on low paid, insecure casual contracts[1]. Here we give a brief overview of what this means for fees, education, and activism at our University and across the education system.

What is the TEF?

The TEF is complicated and students have often not been well informed about what it is, how it works, or the huge implications it holds for the future of our education. Basically, the TEF itself is a framework of metrics or measures introduced by the government to assess teaching in higher education institutions in England, and, crucially, to link performance in the TEF to the raising of tuition fees in future. These metrics fall into two areas: student satisfaction and graduate earnings / employability. If you are a final year student you might (definitely) have been bombarded with propaganda about the National Student Survey. This is one of the metrics for student satisfaction and links directly into the TEF at your institution. The TEF itself is being rolled out in 4 stages from 2016 to 2019, with more and more measures and metrics each year, so that this year’s results represent TEF year 2 (or TEF2). All institutions have now been notified whether they have been awarded a ‘gold’, ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ award in the TEF2 against their benchmarks.

So why is it shit exactly?

Birmingham Socialist Students wrote a piece last year (here) detailing some of the major problems with the TEF. The standard criticisms of the TEF in the media tend to focus on the use of benchmarks; that they are misleading, and that they may serve to further entrench class, gender, and racial inequalities across the system. Whenever metrics or targets are introduced to create a ‘market’, rather than playing by the rules it is all too common for institutions to instead game the system. It has been standard practice in some institutions where our comrades work in the student and trade unions for management to, for example, pay for elaborate away trips around the NSS, give out prizes for participation, or co-opt their student unions to buy or manipulate their way to better results. And some of these schemes can be very sophisticated. Additionally, the measures used in the TEF are not directly comparable in any meaningful sense, for example, the student satisfaction ratings are heavily weighted between institutions so that a score of 80% to 90% may be worth silver in one institution while a score of 70% to 80% may be worth gold in another. There is also evidence that there can be gendered and racialised consequences for staff members as societal prejudices are reproduced in the metrics (see here).

But the most profound problem with the TEF is what it means for our fees and for education in the long term. The single major motivation for introducing the TEF is to create financial and reputational pressure on Universities to focus on their future graduate earnings. So, not only will the TEF mean higher fees in future, it may also mean that the options for students to choose degrees that do not lead to highly paid jobs in the city, big corporations, or the professions may not be there future generations. To break that down – the TEF grades Universities which affects their reputation and future income in a big way; University senior managers with a track record of attacking staff and worker’s rights then look at how different subjects perform in the TEF metrics; they then sack staff in areas they don’t want to fund so as to invest in other parts of the University and get better TEF scores. This is the real danger. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (discussed in full in our article here) shows that the TEF will disadvantage Languages, Philosophy, History, Media, and the humanities in general in favour of vocational subjects, sciences and Economics. In short, the very nature of University education and how that education is valued is at stake.

Here at the University of Birmingham, only last year, senior management was defeated in a wide ranging program of redundancies against several departments including modern languages, which was, at the time,  in pursuit of short term and poorly informed metrics around grant capture. The TEF will only add to these pressures.

Does this mean my tuition fees will be increased?

Because of the way in which the TEF works the University of Birmingham has already announced that fees for the vast majority of undergraduate courses will be increased to £9,250 from 2017 for new graduates starting from September. The fee increases were linked to last year’s TEF1, which was based on a review of the teaching qualifications of academic staff and led to 96% of Universities being allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation. Thanks to an amendment from a crusty rabble of viscounts and bishops in the House of Lords the government was temporarily prevented from linking further rises in fees to the TEF. But, nonetheless, our friends in red robes and fur collars[2] only temporarily suspended this link on the basis that the TEF “wasn’t ready” and needed more work on the metrics. So expect further rises in fees swinging your way in the not too distant future. And, of course, despite this issue with fees, the award in itself has a strong impact on the reputation of Universities so will still significantly affect student recruitment and future income, thus creating management reorganisations and redundancies across the humanities and other subject areas affected.

But surely better teaching is a good thing?

Better teaching is a good thing. Lecturers having time for their students, caring about their futures, and designing their content around the needs of their students is a good thing. But we don’t need the TEF to make these improvements and, in many ways, real day to day student experience is largely left behind in the TEF metrics. Better uptake of training through HEA accreditation could, and perhaps should, be a mandatory requirement of the teaching profession, not something that relies on market competition. We should be employing managers at the top levels of Universities who drive an holistic agenda of teaching quality, high quality research, and graduate destinations based not on their love of the private sector but their love of teaching and research. Such things can be made measureable and transparent to future students, but not because we are customers of a commodified education system that sees no benefit of education beyond its collective utility to a dysfunctional economic system rigged along lines of gender, race, and class before we can even tie our own shoe laces. In our hands a truly democratic and emancipatory education would be the very means through which such an exploitative system would be brought down, not the means through which we are forced down the ever narrower curriculums that best serve that broken system.

[1] See this article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay

[2] Ermine fur, or, if they’re being really really traditional, endangered red squirrel

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