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Universities Minister's speech – how can universities deliver value for money?

William Hammonds

William Hammonds

Policy Manager
Universities UK

​The focus of Jo Johnson's speech today was on value for money. 

Since the election, there has been continued debate on the funding of higher education. Many strengths of the current system were identified in the Minister's speech, such as maximising access to higher education, including to the most disadvantaged, with no cap on student numbers. It also provides sustainable funding of a world-class higher education sector, balancing the costs across students and taxpayers.

However, the speech also highlighted that there are misconceptions surrounding the current system. The current system is not uniformly well understood.  There is room to do more to ensure individuals make the right decisions in relation to higher education and their future – and Universities UK will be looking at this issue in more detail.  

Subject level Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment responds to a view that students want more information about their courses. It also reflects the diversity of teaching practice between subjects. However, this isn't risk free. Expanding volumes of information can confuse as much as clarify, a point noted by Sir Michael Barber, and a salient issue if awards differ between subject and institution. There are also issues around the granularity, quality and comparability of the data that assessments are based on that need to be considered before we can proceed with confidence.

There are also broader questions that will need to be considered in the context of the independent review of TEF. We estimate that HEIs spent approximately £4million on year 2 TEF submissions but this will certainly increase for subject level assessment. There is also the question about what behaviours might be driven by the assessment, such as reorganisation of subject groups, how likely this is or whether it is positive. Consideration will also need to be given to the wider student information landscape and TEF's place in it.

Also included in the TEF piloting will be a new 'teaching intensity' metric, which is another way of saying 'contact hours'. This would represent a significant departure from the current TEF metrics that were pre-existing measures that focus on outcomes, for example, whether students are satisfied with teaching. A 'teaching intensity' metric by contrast will need to collect new data and is focused on measuring input quantities of staff time. It also misses Graham Gibbs' central point that the key to student outcomes is the quality of and engagement with the learning process.

The HEA-HEPI survey itself suggests student satisfaction is linked to a minimum number of hours per week – approximately 12. Higher education also needs a maximum number of contact hours to leave space for independent study and discovery. How a contact hours metric will aid assessment of what happens in between, across subject and pedagogical diversity is not particularly clear. This type of collection will likely focus academics on hitting perceived targets, rather than designing and delivering quality teaching that engages, and satisfies, their students.

The proposed consultation on student contracts highlights an important area where there have been developments recently. Following 2015 CMA advice all universities have been working to ensure that contracts with students are fair and transparent. Students can also complain through the independent adjudicator for higher education and ultimately the courts. As our recent report​ shows it is important that students are treated fairly by their university and UUK will work with the Office for Students to explore where practice could be developed in this area.​

This set of announcements is indicative of how high value for money is on the political agenda. Students value a personal relationship with their university and want to be confident in they have invested their time and money in a university that will deliver on its promises. Equally there are risks that prescriptive performance management of the sector will undermine the diversity and richness of these relationships. The challenge for the sector is to respond to this new debate by continuing to reaffirm and develop the value of higher education.​

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