Value for money in higher education Contents

3The quality of higher education

30.Our inquiry has heard evidence on forms of teaching and learning in higher education which move away from the traditional undergraduate three-year degree. We have also heard contrasting opinions on the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), and its ability to assess teaching quality.

The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework

31.TEF was introduced in 2016 and assesses the quality of teaching in universities by ranking them as gold, silver or bronze. Participation in the TEF is currently voluntary, but in the future participation will be a condition of registration with the OfS. In June the DfE released the results of TEF3. The methodology was altered from the previous iteration in 2017, to halve the weighting on the results of the National Student Survey (NSS) and introduce a supplementary metric on graduate earnings using the LEO data. The Higher Education Research Act 2017 states that there must be an independent review of the TEF.

32.Throughout our inquiry we heard mixed reviews of the TEF and its ability to signal the quality of teaching in a broad range of institutions. Professor Husbands, also Chair of the TEF panel, told us that it has thrown a light on “the relationship between what universities set out to do and the outcomes their students achieve”, and that it has “benchmarked for the socioeconomic status and the other elements of the background of the student population”.30 Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, agreed that the TEF “gives that clarity about, at present, which universities are the best at providing an outstanding teaching and learning experience”.31 University Alliance broadly welcomed the TEF:

As TEF enters its third year, and as subject-level pilots are introduced, it is important that it continue to be developed in a constructive matter. It must reflect different models of teaching excellence which exist in varied forms across UK higher education providers, and it must support innovation in teaching and learning.32

33.We heard strong objections to TEF from Professor Louise Richardson. She called it a “costly distraction” and the Russell Group has made no secret of its reservations about the metrics used. We also received written evidence from the University of Sheffield which said that although the ethos behind it is correct, its implementation is “fundamentally flawed”.33 Several submissions rejected the idea of linking fees to TEF awards:

It would damage higher education if a variable tuition fee system was introduced based on either Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) ratings or graduate earnings. All UK higher education is quality assured (and deemed to be excellent), and the TEF would be a blunt instrument on which to base a system of fee differentiation (and ultimately reduce the unit of student resource).34

34.Universities UK’s review of the TEF after its second year raised further concerns from the sector.35 The report presented survey results from 83 member institutions. Respondents were not confident that the TEF would make a positive contribution to student decision-making. Just 2% of respondents agreed that “the TEF will accurately assess teaching and learning excellence”.36 Two other recent research reports have indicated that students are not yet using the TEF to inform their decisions. Research by UCAS showed that just one in five applicants in 2018 knew what the TEF was before applying.37 Similarly, a report published by the DfE found that although a majority of respondents had heard of TEF, only 15% (of prospective students) and 16% of (prospective and current students) had used or intended to use the TEF to inform their application choice.38

35.The Government intends to extend TEF to the subject level in 2019–20 and 2020–21. The first subject-level TEF pilot has recently completed and the second pilot will be carried out during the academic year 2018–19. Sir Michael Barber said that implementing subject-level TEF was one of the top priorities for the OfS.39 Dame Janet Beer explained why she hopes the subject-level TEF will be helpful for students:

a student does not apply to the university in order to study philosophy, physics, English or chemistry. They apply for English at five different ones, so the only meaningful comparison for them is at the subject level, not the institutional level. Universities are big, complex organisations, and subjects and courses are different within that. I do hope that when we get to subject-level TEF, it is truly useful for students in terms of making that all-important decision about what kind of degree is going to suit them in the subject that they want to study.40

36.Full implementation of subject-level TEF will come after the independent review. Universities UK recommended that the independent review consider:

37.The TEF is still in its infancy and requires further improvement and embedding to become the broad measure of quality that we want it to be. We look forward to the independent review of TEF and recommend that it focuses on how the exercise is used by students to inform and improve choice. The review must include an assessment of how TEF is used in post-16 careers advice. For the TEF to improve value for money for students it must play a more significant role in the decision-making process of applicants.

Flexibility in higher education provision

38.We have heard compelling evidence for greater flexibility in provision. Installing greater flexibility would make higher education more accessible and offer the best value for money for students. The Open University has particularly championed credit transfer and learning in ‘bite-sized chunks’. It has proposed a ‘universal credit transfer system’ where “learning validated by one provider has common currency throughout the system”.42 Adopting this approach would allow students to ‘hop on and off’ from their learning, allow students to take study breaks, move to providers in different areas or alter the intensity of their study.

We urge an increased focus on policies that encourage rather than discourage provision of high quality flexible learning options. This will make higher education possible for time poor students already in work (the ‘earn and learners’), and for those who cannot study full-time for other reasons such as caring responsibilities, disabilities or long-term health conditions. Delivering greater choice is not just of benefit to the individual, but also, where applicable, their employer.43

39.Coventry University is also leading in its provision of flexible learning opportunities. Its campuses in Coventry, London and Scarborough mean students have more choice about where to study and provide flexible ‘life-shaped learning’.44 Professor Marshall, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Coventry University told us:

our college group has six entry points a year, modular at times, with self-contained learning. You can hop on and you can hop off. We do times in the day, so you are either a morning or an afternoon. You are always guaranteed that your course will be running in that timeslot. We do Saturday mornings.45

40.The University of Central Lancashire discussed the need for more flexibility in its submission.46 In particular, it criticised the Government’s encouragement of a “linear” approach to higher education, which has both discouraged disadvantaged students from entering university and “failed to respond quickly to the ever-changing needs of the UK economy”.47

41.On the Government’s post-18 review Dr Gavan Conlon, Partner at London Economics, said:

The problem with previous reviews, and particularly the Browne review, is that there seems to be this focus on 18-year-old to 21-year-old full-time university-level education [ … ] Pigeonholing these different types of learner just leads to an incredibly complicated system and unintended consequences, and we see that with the decline of part-time. That is because the focus was almost entirely on full-time 18-year-olds to 21-year-olds. You have to look at the whole thing.48

42.Institutions should move away from a linear approach to degrees, and enable more part-time, mature and disadvantaged students to study in higher education. We recommend that the Government’s current post-18 review develop a funding model which allows a range of flexible options including credit transfer and ‘hopping on and off’ learning.

Accelerated degrees

43.We heard mixed views on the benefits of accelerated degree programmes. In December 2017 the then Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced a consultation on two-year, accelerated degrees.49 The Government’s proposals would allow institutions to charge up to 20% more each year for accelerated degrees. The Government has claimed that students could be £25,000 better off by doing a degree in two years.50 This is calculated by a £5,500 saving in total tuition costs, compared to a standard three-year course, plus the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduating.

44.Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Chair of the independent review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements in Wales, told us that accelerated degrees could offer an alternative, mainly for mature students who wanted to gain a degree more quickly.51 Dr Conlon discussed accelerated degrees in terms of the Government’s post-18 review. He said:

There is a real issue about flexible learning, so in terms of the review I am very glad to see so much concentration on alternative routes such as part-time accelerated learning, and there are many individuals who would welcome a comparable level of support to full-time students but while undertaking qualifications on a part-time, accelerated or flexible basis.52

45.Students at The Edge Hotel School complete an undergraduate degree alongside management of a hotel. By completing the degree in two years students are able to enter the world of work more quickly, with less debt and high-quality experience of the workplace.53 It told us:

Students are involved in every aspect of the operation and management of the hotel and, in their final level, undertake duty management roles effectively running the hotel and dealing with customers, many of whom have no idea that the hotel is an educational institution. Concurrent with this they are undergraduates, attending lectures, seminars and workshops and reading for a University of Essex validated degree. There is no reduction in the academic rigor of the content or standards. There is no concession to the shorter ‘personal development’ time.54

46.However, some witnesses to the inquiry expressed apprehension about two-year degrees and largely agreed that they should not become the norm for undergraduate study. Professor Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education and Director of Research, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, added:

We also need to be clear what problem we are trying to solve. I have heard the two-year degrees being used as a solution to lower-income students getting higher education. If they cost the same, they are pro-rated, and it makes it harder to work during that two-year period, then it seems to me it is not an obvious solution to the problem that we have.55

47.The Open University pointed out that accelerated degrees will largely benefit those who can afford not to work for two years. It suggested that other forms of flexible learning such as banking learning credit would be much more suitable for students from lower income households.56

48.More flexible approaches to higher education should be supplemented by the option for undergraduates of studying for two-year accelerated degrees alongside the traditional three-year model. The post-18 review should investigate potential funding models to clarify the benefits and costs of accelerated degrees, taking into account fees, living costs and post-study earnings.

49.The introduction of two-year degrees must not create a two-tier system where students from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to take them on the basis of cost. The Government’s review of higher education should include an impact assessment of how accelerated degrees will affect disadvantaged students.

32 University Alliance (VAL 61) para 22

33 University of Sheffield (VAL 55) para 6.2

34 MillionPlus (VAL 58) para 8

36 Ibid, p 28

41 Universities UK (VAL 63) para 3

43 Open University (VAL 19) para 8

44 Coventry University (VAL 35) para 2.5

46 University of Central Lancashire (VAL 39)

47 Ibid, para 3.4

53 Edge Hotel School (VAL 84)

54 Ibid, para 4

56 The Open University (VAL0019) para 9

Published: 5 November 2018