The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education Contents

3Timetable for introduction of the TEF and link to tuition fees

The link with tuition fees

21.In 2012, the cap on fees for new undergraduate students in England was increased to £9,000 a year. In the first year of the new fee regime, the average fee was around £8,400. Since then the headline fee has since increased each year to approximately £8,900 in 2015–16.20 Of the 183 institutions with 2016–17 access agreements, 139 (76%) charge the maximum headline fee of £9,000. The majority of institutions with fees lower than the cap of £9,000 were further education colleges; only one institution with a fee of below £9,000 was a university.21

22.The 2012 increase in the tuition fee cap to £9,000 coincided with a cut to most of the ongoing direct public funding for tuition in England. As a result, the overall balance of higher education funding moved away from the taxpayer and towards the student.22

23.Since the 2012 increase, the UK is estimated to have the highest average fee levels of any ‘public’ universities in the world and the second highest average fees levels across all types of universities, behind the US.23 There was a 6.6% fall in the total number of applicants to UK universities in 2012, when the higher fees were introduced, compared to 2011. Whilst the number of applications has since increased, the 2014 number remained below the 2011 high.24

24.Under the proposals set out in the Green Paper, in year one of the TEF, providers who have successfully completed a quality assessment review will be awarded the first level of TEF and will be able to raise their fees in line with inflation, up to a maximum fee cap, from the 2017–18 academic year.25 The level one award will last for three years.26 It is expected that most institutions would qualify for level one TEF in its first year.27 In year two, institutions will be able to apply for higher levels of TEF in order to take advantage of financial incentives (higher tuition fee caps). These will be differentiated according to the level of TEF achieved and will apply from the academic year 2018–19. Again, the awards would last for three years.

25.The Green Paper states that the Secretary of State will have “a power to set tuition fee caps and require [the Office for Students] to monitor all registered providers to ensure they are complying with the tuition fee caps—this is essential to limit the financial exposure of taxpayers”.28 The Government anticipates a maximum fee cap will correspond to each of the proposed four TEF award levels. Fee caps would apply regardless of an institution’s performance in previous TEF cycles, so they will not be able to ‘bank’ increases gained if they performed better on the TEF in previous years. Fees charged to students are not expected by the Government to vary during a single course.29

26.There are undoubtedly financial pressures on Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) which could be eased by the ability to increase tuition fees, at least in line with inflation. HEFCE explained that, in the medium term, the financial situations of institutions meant that they were heavily dependent on international student recruitment for income.30 Universities UK highlighted the pressures which incentivised universities to focus on the most financially viable courses, against the wider national and student interests.31 From a student perspective, the NUS referred to an expectation from students that increased funding via tuition fees in 2012 would lead to higher quality teaching, but that had not happened because tuition fees were replacing rather than supplementing public money.32

27.In order to continue to thrive in a competitive environment, universities will need to raise funds from a variety of sources, potentially including tuition fees. Views on whether increased tuition fees are the solution to current financial concerns vary and are inevitably drawn into the wider debate about university funding. Debate about the principle of increasing fees was not part of our inquiry; we focused solely on the proposed link between the TEF and the ability to increase fees. Nor did we look at the wider but important link between teaching quality and casualised labour.33 That said, students are entitled to expect high quality teaching, given the costs they are incurring; the Government should be sensitive to the perception that it is students who are having to fund an increase in teaching quality.

28.The weight of evidence we heard in this inquiry from the universities sector was against creating a link between TEF and tuition fees. Whilst there was acceptance of and support for a requirement to demonstrate a minimal teaching standard before increasing fees—such as that envisaged under TEF 1—there was widespread concern about applying TEF to a more sophisticated, differentiated set of fee levels based upon teaching quality. The arguments against this link included:

29.In response, the Government’s Green Paper argues that the reputational advantages from TEF in helping to recruit students will “take time to develop and mature” and therefore additional incentives are required to drive up teaching quality.37 The example of the Research Excellence Framework is cited to demonstrate that it is financial incentives that are needed to drive institutional behaviour, and the incentives for high quality should be as enticing for teaching as they are for research.38 The Minister argued that such a link would enable universities that offered high quality teaching to invest more in teaching and those that were not able to obtain additional funding would be incentivised to refocus their efforts on improving teaching quality.39

30.It is unlikely that there will be a taxpayer-funded increase in university funding in this Parliament. The alternative to the link between the TEF and tuition fees would be for the Government to raise the tuition fee cap, whether in line with inflation or not, and to make the arguments on the basis of funding requirements. A further alternative would be for the link to be retained for TEF 1—to guarantee minimum standards—but not be extended to the more differentiated levels, either at all, or until the metrics used to underpin the different awards proved to be sufficiently robust.

31.We have carefully considered the arguments for and against the linking of the TEF to increases in tuition fees. We agree with the Government that no university should be allowed to increase its tuition fees without being able to demonstrate that the quality of its teaching meets minimum standards. The proposals for TEF 1 should meet this objective and we support its implementation along the lines outlined in the Green Paper.

32.In terms of further development, we support the principle of a more sophisticated link (using differentiated levels) between teaching quality and fee level, provided that the metrics used to measure teaching quality can command sufficient confidence of both students and universities. This will better enable students and taxpayers to hold universities to account for the service they provide. A multi-tiered TEF should only

be introduced once Government can demonstrate its metrics have the confidence of students and universities. Achieving the necessary degree of confidence is in part dependent on the timetable for full introduction.


33.Table 4 shows the Government’s proposed timetable for setting up and introducing the TEF. By this timescale, decisions about whether HEIs had achieved TEF 1 status, meaning success in a Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) assessment, would be announced in April 2016. The metrics for further iterations of the TEF would be developed via consultations in 2016, with the results of the next phase of TEF announced in April 2017 and used to inform decisions relating to 2018–19.

Table 4: Timeline for introduction of the TEF.



15 January 2016

Green Paper consultation closes

January to March 2016

TEF level 1 decisions made but not announced (status of QA reviews and fee uplift)

Spring 2016

Government response to Green Paper consultation

Spring 2016

TEF technical consultation

Spring 2016

TEF level 1 decisions announced

September 2016

Response to technical consultation

October 2016

Publish technical guidance for providers and panel members

October to December 2016

Providers apply

January to February 2017

Panels undertake assessments

March 2017


April 2017

Results to providers and published, to inform decisions relating to 2018–19

Source: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

34.With regards to TEF 1, we heard that the timescale did not necessarily pose a particular pressure, as QAA assessments could be applied to decisions about fee levels in 2017–18.40 We heard general agreement that this was a reasonable approach. There was less faith that further iterations of the TEF would be developed in the timescale proposed. The main concerns were:

35.The Minister was at pains to stress that the TEF is being introduced “very, very gradually”46 and that the timescale was achievable. He explained

For the first year, in 2017–18, the process is looking at the baseline review of quality assurance as the threshold for an institution being eligible to increase its fees in line with inflation. In 2018–19 and thereafter, we will be using the TEF framework to be the basis on which we make these judgments. For the moment, until we have the learning gain pilots—and they will not be ready for some years yet—we are proposing to use the metrics that we are consulting on in the Green Paper, supplemented by any qualitative information that institutions themselves want to put forward. All this information—quantitative and qualitative—will be assessed in the round by a panel of expert reviewers, so that they can take an informed, nuanced judgment. We are not basing it just on metrics, nor are we basing it just on what institutions supply—it is a blend of the two assessed by the panel.47

36.It is clear that there are widespread concerns within the sector about whether the Government will be able to introduce more sophisticated iterations of the TEF within its proposed timeframe in a meaningful way. We recognise these concerns, although also appreciate the ambition of the Minister to drive progress, and we welcome his acknowledgement of the need for an iterative approach. However, we are conscious that the Government is seeking to experiment in an area of national strength. It is important that the Government does not take undue risks: it is more important to get this right than to get there quickly. Equally, it is up to the universities to assist the Government in developing more sophisticated metrics as early as possible. Implementation of further iterations of TEF should progress at a speed which allows for the ability to apply greater differentiation to be based upon more sophisticated metrics that can command the confidence of both staff and students. We recommend that the universities sector engages with the Government to provide evidence as necessary to help develop more sophisticated metrics as early as possible. We further recommend that the Government sets out how it will collate the evidence that will inform future iterations of the TEF and provide an indicative timescale for its development.

Subject or institutional level?

37.In its early stages, the Green Paper envisages that the TEF will operate at an institutional level. That is, HEIs will be awarded a TEF score, rather than each individual subject within those. In time—the Green Paper proposes “as soon as is practicable”48—it is expected that the TEF will move towards being awarded at a subject level, with those assessments being aggregated to produce an overall institutional award.49 Most of the evidence we heard was supportive of the arguments in favour of a subject-level TEF, mainly on the grounds that this would be of most assistance to students in making their choices.50 It would also make it more difficult for weaker subjects to be hidden within an otherwise high scoring institution.

38.Developing a TEF at subject level is not, however, without difficulty. We heard that at a subject level there is more scope for gaming of the system, with subjects being badged on a tactical basis (by changing subject codes) in order to hide any poor provision.51 Careful benchmarking would therefore be required in order to make this level of assessment effective and to minimise the scope for playing the system. A subject level TEF would, we heard, also impose some additional bureaucratic burdens on institutions.52 In addition, we were told that “some things are at an institutional level”, including: “the learning environment; the way in which a university supports those who teach; the whole framework of continuing professional development; and the academic vision of the university”.53

39.We agree that a rounded assessment of teaching quality should include consideration of the wider aspects of teaching as well as the merits of those doing the teaching. This should be the goal. We recognise that a subject level TEF may be less comfortable and straightforward for universities but it will have the most direct impact on teaching quality. For students making choices about where to study, the TEF at an institutional level provides little useful information. We therefore welcome the Government’s direction of travel to a subject-level TEF. We recommend that it sets out the timescale for this objective, taking into account the need to avoid establishing a complex and expensive bureaucratic administrative system. In the longer term, in the context of a working link between TEF score and tuition fee, there is a logic to tuition fees operating at a subject level in accordance with the relevant TEF score. However, we recognise that there are considerable practical issues around the operation of such a system to be resolved before it could be implemented.

20 Tuition fee statistics, House of Commons Library briefing paper no. 917, 5 October 2015, p3

21 Tuition fee statistics, House of Commons Library briefing paper no. 917, 5 October 2015, p9

22 HE in England from 2012: Funding and finance, House of Commons Library briefing paper no. 6206, 17 August 2015, p3

23 This estimate included private institutions in the US. Changes to higher education funding and student support in England from 2012/13, House of Commons Library briefing paper no. 5753, February 2012, p9

24 Tuition fee statistics, House of Commons Library briefing paper no. 917, 5 October 2015, p15

25 See Table 1

26 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Cm 9141, November 2015, p22

27 Higher Education Green Paper Fulfilling Our Potential, House of Commons Library briefing no. 7399, 10 November 2015, p9

28 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Cm 9141 p64. The financial exposure to the taxpayer arises because only a proportion of student loans are repaid; the rest of the cost is borne by the taxpayer.

29 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Cm 9141, p30

30 Q146 [Professor Atkins]

31 Q23

32 Q86

33 Q71 [Megan Dunn]; the term “casualised labour” refers to those teachers, particularly post-graduates who are employed on short term contracts or paid on an hourly basis

34 Cambridge University (QHE 60)

35 National Union of Students (QHE 41); Q96 [Megan Dunn]

36 Q73 [Sally Hunt]

37 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Cm 9141 p29

38 Q104

39 Q174

40 Q15, Q38

41 Universities UK (QHE 56)

42 Q38 [Professor Tynan]

43 Q38 [Professor Ward]; Q92 [Megan Dunn] Q100 [Professor Wilsdon]

44 Q118 [Professor Wilsdon], Q118 [Matt Hiely-Rayner]

45 Universities UK response to Green Paper Fulfilling our potential: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, 15 January 2016

46 Q179

47 Q179

48 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Cm 9141, p29

49 Q162 [Madeleine Atkins]; Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Cm 9141, p29

50 Q164. See also: Q95, Q162

51 Q114

52 Cambridge University (QHE 60)

53 Q164

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 26 February 2016