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OUSU backs criticism of higher education reform

Representatives from student unions across the UK, including the Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU),  have written an open letter to the vice-chancellors of British universities asking them to oppose the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. The letter, published in the Guardian on Wednesday, criticises the ‘questionable metrics’ that TEF will be based on and the divisions that it will cause between higher education providers.

TEF was first proposed in a government green paper in November 2015. Although a final proposal has not been released, it has already been described as a radical shake-up of the British higher education system. It aims to make comparison between higher education providers easier for prospective students, but has also been linked to an increase in the number of institutions able to award degrees and the increase of tuition fees at top universities.

The letter criticising TEF was signed by OUSU president Jack Hampton as well as five of the organisation’s vice-presidents. They appeared on the list of signatories along with representatives from 49 other university student unions, including the Cambridge University Students’ Union, the University College London Students’ Union and the University of Bristol Students’ Union. The controversial president of the NUS, Malia Bouattia, signed the letter with twelve NUS vice-presidents and senior officers.

TEF will group higher education providers into three bands based on their performance in three ‘metrics’. These metrics are student satisfaction, retention (the number of students who complete their courses at the institution within the prescribed timeframe) and graduate employment. All of these metrics have come under a degree of criticism from universities and student groups as likely to be effected by factors other than teaching quality. It has also been suggested that measuring retention rates may lead to universities making their courses easier whilst graduate employment rates may discourage universities from offering niche or highly academic degrees.

In response to these criticisms, government advisors have proposed measuring these metrics qualitatively, via a team of experts, rather than quantitatively. Alternatively replacing the metrics with a measure of ‘value added’ or ‘learning gain’ has been discussed. If adopted, this may involve a test taken by students at the beginning of their course and repeated at the end, but there are currently no published details about how this would be implemented.

In the green paper ‘The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education’, published in February 2016, government advisors asked universities to engage in ‘speedy establishment of potentially viable metrics relating to learning gain’.

In its official response to the paper, Oxford University expressed concern about the division that TEF may place between teaching and research.

In a statement to Cherwell, OUSU commented, “We don’t believe that the TEF will have a positive impact on Oxford University, or on UK Higher Education as a whole. In its currently proposed form, the TEF is a broad-brush exercise that doesn’t account for differences in teaching across the sector, and given that undergraduate study at Oxford is based on the tutorial system and differs considerably from other institutions, we do not think that the TEF will account for this adequately.

“According to modelling conducted by the Times Higher Education based on the proposed metrics, Oxford ranked 4th on raw data, and 28th once benchmarking had taken place. This would put us in the Outstanding category, which means the University will be able to raise fees by the level of inflation. This has disastrous implications for access. Debt aversion is a known deterrent to prospective students; if the University is able to raise fees year on year, an Oxford education will become less and less accessible to many students from less advantaged backgrounds, making our community less diverse and impeding our ability to attract the best students regardless of background.

“The metrics that are currently being proposed are the results of the NSS and DLHE surveys. We believe that neither student satisfaction rankings nor employment and salary data of leavers six months after graduation are reliable or robust indicators of the quality of teaching in an institution. DLHE data in particular has been shown to reflect the background and demographics of the student population more than the quality of the education they received. Attempting to shoehorn teaching excellence into a narrow definition based on these criteria is not only reductive, it is also damaging to UK Higher Education as a whole.
“As general principles, we welcome increased transparency and accountability of academic provision within HE – it is important to make sure that universities are providing excellent quality teaching to their students. However, there are ulterior motives at play in the reforms heralded by the government’s White Paper and HE Bill. There is an underlying assumption to the TEF, demonstrated by the link to fee increases, that a better education should cost more. This will result in a differentiated fee system across HE, creating a hierarchy within the sector that will lead prospective students to choose where to study based on cost, rather than quality.

“We are fully committed to an Oxford that is as accessible and inclusive as possible. We oppose the TEF because we believe that it will have a catastrophic effect on access. Raising fees in the way proposed through TEF puts the burden on the student, rather than the government, to cover the costs of a university education. Oxford is already an expensive place to live and study; if fees consistently increase at the rate of inflation, an Oxford degree will become exponentially more unaffordable for many prospective students.”


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