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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post is part of an ongoing series where I intend to develop my full personal (not institutional) response to the HE Green Paper. Comments are welcome to refine this.

The Green Paper asks (as question 4):

Where relevant, should an approved Access Agreement be a pre-requisite for a TEF award? What other mechanism might be used for different types of providers?

Yes.

Access agreements should be a pre-requisite for any TEF award, if the TEF goes ahead.

However, there is a further aspect to consider. The crucial point here is, as the Green Paper points out, that

“In allowing providers to raise fees in line with inflation, we must consider whether higher fees are likely to have a disproportionate impact. Although information on the price sensitivity of disadvantaged students is limited, we have seen that numbers from these groups going to university have continued to improve, despite previous reforms that changed the funding of higher education so that students contribute more.”

Yet, younger, less-well-established providers are most likely to be hit the hardest by this. Cambridge and Oxford, for example, can likely raise their fees and those who are admitted will take the financial hit because of the brand power of those institutions (regardless of their TEF scores). Yet a younger provider that fared well on TEF would not see an instant reputational boost (it is arguable that they might never see that because we have no way of knowing how TEF scores will interact with the global HE market). This means that those younger institutions will be viewed as worse value for money because all existing behavioural evidence shows that students value most metrics far less than institutional tradition and historical prestige. While, therefore, the goal of this Green Paper purports to be a “level playing field” there are centuries of tradition working against that; any new or younger institution cannot expect to raise its fees off the back of a TEF score without realising that they will be deemed worse “value for money” than those with strong historical brand value (used by students and employers). In other words: any mechanism must be sensitive to the potential for perverse incentives here: with the admissions cap lifted, young institutions who fare well at TEF will still be unlikely to remain competitive if they raise fees. There is, therefore, a potential mobility problem in the envisaged market that is being proposed.

There is another potential point of backfire here that should be considered. In prioritising continuation as a measure of how well an institution supports its students, institutions may be likely to attempt to recruit students with other background characteristics that make continuation more likely. Put otherwise: institutions that can be extremely selective, for whatever reasons, may look as though they are achieving success through supporting students. The reality may be that, in fact, they are simply recruiting students from disadvantaged demographics but only those who also intersect with a higher-outcome background. Care should be taken to avoid this type of gaming by examining intake demographics across a multi-dimensional dataset.

Finally, “employment” is an extremely bad measure of teaching quality. Although it is clear that social mobility is a desirable outcome of HE access practices, it is more likely that employment outcomes will be better at institutions where employers tend to use the institutional brand names as a proxy for the quality of applicants. But high-quality teaching can be found at every institution, although it may vary on aggregate at different levels across whole institutions. There is also the problem of intake demographic. If a university has a large number of part-time, mature students already in employment, then this type of measure will yield a warped outcome. It is also the case that forming connections with people in business can have a substantial effect on the chances of employment. This, though, is nothing to do with subject teaching at institutions. TEF is, after all, billed as a potential teaching framework, not an employability and networking framework. In short: there are complex geographical, institutional, and historical factors that determine employability outcomes that are nothing to do with teaching. To include such measures in a teaching framework would considerably damage the credibility of the exercise. Employment outcomes should not be used as a teaching metric.