The Galactic University Rankings

I’m not a fan of rankings.  I’ve been grumpy about them since 1993, but I recognise that, in the UK, in order to have a trade paper, and a pretty good one, they need to earn a buck. They’ve had their big launch this week and all very well choreographed it was too (spoilt only by the Independent whose basic journalistic competence is so badly compromised they can’t understand the concept of an embargo any more).

I’m enjoying the big glossy booklet with the rankings in it – but perhaps not for the reasons intended.  In 2017 it is now officially twice as big as the magazine (154 pages vs 72 pages).  There’s lots of lovely content in the rankings guide, I’m sure, but I’ve been captivated by the advertising.  I’ve always wondered about the very general advertising that some universities place in THE; it’s often positioning statements, rather than actually advertising courses or jobs.  I wonder if they think that the people who fill in the reputation surveys will remember Manipal University next time, or that we’ll be beating a path to East China Normal University next time we want a partner in Shanghai.

I first spotted the galactic theme.  There are several universities who’ve put their messaging against a star-filled sky.  The imagery is obvious, CUHK sum it up nicely – ‘Reach for the Stars – a galaxy of leading scholars and educators – soar with us’ We might be a global university (CUHK is 58th this year) but go beyond this to the stars.

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But, even dull sublunary types, you start reading the slogans.  There have been some great pieces done with slogans – for example Liz Morrish on the Russell Group or the American version. I can’t offer poetry, just replication.  These are all in large font size in the advertising featured in the THE World University Rankings Booklet

Asian insight. Global outlook.
A World-class university in an incredible city
Asia’s Global University
A different gaze
The Chinese University for Global Leadership
The World needs New
Not just another university
From here, you could go anywhere
Challenging convention, saying ahead of the curve
Seeking Truth and Pursuing Innovation
Transforming Lives
Passionately inspiring the minds of tomorrow
Learn today Lead Tomorrow
Knowledge Pioneers at the heart of Europe
The University for a Changing World
Your Global Future Starts Here
Thinking works
Make a world of difference in a world of differences
Start Here. Go Anywhere
A university for the real world
Where innovation is a mantra and collaboration, an art
Progress doesn’t accept answers. It questions them.
Critical Edge
Never Stop Advancing
We think in terms of possibilities instead of limitations
Gold Award for Outstanding Teaching

Note that the English university who’ve gone with their TEF award rather than something inspirational come towards the end of the booklet.  Although it’s easy to scoff, actually the litany of aspirations does capture something of the extraordinary nature of our universities.  Under attack all summer, maybe we should be proud of what we do, not just focused on two universities, but how the thousand universities that Phil Baty has plonked in his ranking do so much, and how the thousands of universities beyond the glossy booklet do so much too.


Bogus Colleges (9) the Home Office’s big claim

The release of the ONS update on International student migration research came wrapped by two Home Office announcements; first the review by the Migration Advisory Committee and then their own report confirming Tier 4 were the most likely to leave on time.

Away from the very good news that Tier 4 has the best record of migrants returning home (we really do need to have longitudinal data on how many convert to Tier 1 or 2, retaining their skills in the UK) both the ONS and Home Office data showed how student migration has changed over 10 years.

The Home Office report goes into more detail on that trend, charting the ‘abuses’ it had dealt with, including:

From 2010 onwards a new sponsorship scheme was introduced, which required sponsors to apply for accreditation on an annual basis. This was originally through receipt of Highly Trusted Sponsor status, which was replaced with the Basic Compliance Assessment in 2015. Following this or as a result of subsequent enforcement action, licences were not renewed for over 900 FE colleges which were then not able to sponsor international students. In many cases these were colleges where there were concerns over compliance.

Here is the area that appears to have made the biggest difference to the overall numbers.  They include charts which show student numbers in universities stay level, but those in Language Schools and especially ‘Further Education’ decline sharply.

The Home Office has the data on students’ sponsorship and there’s a very clear picture that the sharp rise and fall in ‘Further Education’ was in places that subsequently left the Tier 4 register.

This was reiterated in the Home Office’s press release about the MAC review:

Since 2010, this has included taking away the ability of more than 900 – often bogus or low quality – colleges to bring in international students.

And it featured in their messaging about the reports:

My attempts to understand the data on providers who have had their licences revoked means I’m interested in the number used.  In the three documents it’s stated as ‘more than 900’ providers, ‘over 900 FE colleges’ and ‘over 920 low quality or bogus institutions’.

I know any of these aren’t true.  The data the Home Office has sent me shows that while there are over 900 providers who have left the register, many of the names on the list are duplicates, or places that returned to the register, or perfectly reputable providers that either gave up or were turfed off the list because of the onerous requirements.  It is good that the Home Office has stopped using the blanket label of ‘bogus’ for everyone, but ‘low quality’ won’t wash for places like Hereford Cathedral School or Magdalen College School – examples of the kind of places that have been temporarily dropped from the register.

Further more, the Home Office must be perfectly capable of drilling down into the ‘Further Education’ sector it describes.  How much of the decline in sponsorship comes from small privately owned colleges that offered ‘diploma’ courses through accredited arrangements, but who stayed outside the standard FE or HE frameworks.  If these were the targets – ‘low quality or bogus’ – then they should stop publicly doing down those providers who operate reputably.  These include FE Colleges, whose ability to recruit international students arbitrarily curtailed because of a category they’ve been dropped into.

The Home Office should properly review the impact of removing providers in the 2010-2015 period.  It should stop using an inflated number of ‘bogus’ colleges – especially to avoid it seeming they are doing so to distract from the discovery they’d been using an inflated number of over-staying students.

Remuneration Committees and Vice-Chancellors’ Pay.

Lord Adonis has successfully drawn attention away from the student finance ‘debate’ with the issue of Vice Chancellors’ pay.  In effect, he’s thrown that ‘dead cat’ into a fees debate that he himself has done well to keep going after the election.  As the Newsnight segment about fees on results day showed, the debate keep coming back to VCs’ pay (whether that’s egregious or a fraction of a footballer’s wage).

As autonomous bodies, Universities have got to engage with this issue – OfS can’t tell them what to do, or how much to pay, but they can impose conditions as part of registration – so they need to engage now.  There is an existing means of supporting Councils and Boards of Governors, who are additionally autonomous, through the Council of University Chairs (CUC).  They have a helpful guide to remuneration Committees, which (a) each university should check it has engaged with and (b) should use as a thorough overhaul.

CUC Illustrative Practice Guide to Remuneration Committees 2015

The guide gets straight to the point:

It is probably fair to say that in the eyes of wider society the reputation of Higher Education (HE) can be significantly damaged by pay packages for senior staff that are perceived as out of kilter with pay and conditions elsewhere. The Remuneration Committee faces a difficult challenge in responding to the global market for talent while ensuring that pay is clearly linked to performance and that increases are sustainable. This is very much a reputational issue and therefore an issue for the governing body.

The duties of the committee are set out and the guide notes that ‘processes by which it reaches its decisions need to be clearly available to and understood by all stakeholders’.

The guide explains how a Remuneration Committee should work; it takes performance and benchmarking information.

In its deliberations the Remuneration Committee will need to take account of a range of information. In the case of the head of institution and senior managers this will include evidence of performance against agreed objectives measured by appraisal. It is important for the Committee to differentiate between personal and institutional performance. This is especially relevant where pay rises above the average or performance bonuses are being awarded.

I wonder how many senior managers will have had getting ‘Gold’ in the TEF in their performance objectives?

The other key information is benchmarks; perhaps the key to wage inflation.  Here the guide says:

The Committee should also have a range of benchmark information allowing it to make comparisons with other institutions in the sector. The main sources of such information are the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Vice-Chancellors’ salaries survey, data provided by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and the annual survey undertaken by the Times Higher Education (THE). It should be noted that the CUC survey (which provides to the Chair detailed comparative information) and the UCEA Senior Staff Remuneration Survey (published every February based on salary data as at 1 November the previous year) are current whereas the THE report is based on data from the previous year. The usual caveats apply to the use of benchmark data, namely that benchmark data gives indications and a framework for the exercise of judgement and should not be used in a mechanistic or formulaic manner.
It is also important for benchmarks selected to be regularly reviewed by the Remuneration Committee.

The problem comes from defining policies based around a combination of performance and benchmarks. Here’s an example of how they combine:

Remuneration Policy aims to provide ‘median’ reward compared to comparator groups when acceptable levels of performance have been delivered. For the achievement of outstanding performance, it aims to deliver ‘upper quartile’ remuneration compared to comparator groups

Admittedly this isn’t actually a university remuneration policy (it’s from RM) but it shows how performance and benchmarks can act as an escalator for wages.  Inside the comparator group, any awards at the ‘upper quartile’ level will shift the whole group up, so even the median will increase.  A committee benchmarking the VC against, say, 23 others will find upward drift.  Of course each year there will be new arrivals to the benchmarking pool – perhaps a new VC getting less than the one before, but often not.  Up goes the median and the upper quartile.

The Guide encourages Universities to publish their policies in an annual report, citing UWE’s as an example.

Since 2012/13 the Committee has defined the Vice-Chancellor’s performance targets in relation to the financial performance of the institution and National Student Survey results. In order for the maximum bonus to be payable the stretch targets for both performance targets must be achieved. The achievement of one of the targets triggers a proportion of the allowable bonus subject to their being no deterioration in the other metrics

UWE July 2014

This is transparent – stakeholders at UWE can see the basis on which the VC is assessed, even if the analysis or the amounts aren’t included.  No doubt some of those stakeholders might have views on the causes of an uplift in the NSS.

There may be other examples of published remuneration committee reports, but they are rare.  Indeed, having been cited by the CUC for good practice, UWE appear not to have published another report since.

I’m comfortable with independent governors running the remuneration process, but I worry that the reliance on benchmarking, coupled with a performance target culture is leading to this inflation of salaries.  Governors have been given good cause to worry about the future of individual Universities, worrying about avalanches and market exits.  The recruiting and retaining of a good vice-chancellor has become crucial for governors, and it’s no wonder that the remuneration committee is at the sharp end of this.

The CUC guide, even as illustrative practice, should be dusted off by every university and reviewed.  Hopefully a flood of committee reports will follow, explaining their policies, perhaps linked to a potential duty to explain exceptional pay to OfS.  Transparency would be a good first step – hopefully paving the way for a greater culture of restraint.

State Funding – a deputation

On 23 November 1918 the President of the Board of Education and the Chancellor of the Excequer received a deputation from Universities in Britain and Ireland to make the case for increased state funding.

The meeting was 12 days after the signing of the armistice, and the War was a theme to the presentations made.  There were 67 people on the university side; lay members of council, vice-chancellors and principals (including Miss Tuke of Bedford College, the only woman present) and committee members of the Universities Bureau of the British Empire.  Cases were made for different disciplines, citing their usefulness and issues for Scottish and Irish Universities were outlined, although their relevant secretaries of state were not present.

The minutes of the proceedings set out the arguments made.  A note from Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, a former education minister, set the tone – a nation that had been spending £6-7 million a day on fighting the war could afford £2 million a year to support higher education.

Sir Oliver Lodge spoke first, representing the ‘Modern Universities’. He concentrated on professorial salaries, noting that a large increase was needed for them.

You may be starving the source of the golden eggs by not dealing with this matter in a liberal fashion. Professorships must be established on a better footing.

He then described how the basis of University education must be enlarged, ‘throwing it open to a wider class of the community’, and describing how more activity would require more funding.  He also recounted how Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, had encouraged the universities ‘to get American students over here and to send our men over there’.  He explained how universities were establishing a new degree ‘having as its object a training in research’ for both home and American students.  But, he noted, these new PhDs would be expensive to teach.

His pitch was for the 1915 review of the grant (which had been planned to double expenditure but didn’t happen because of the war) to be added to a 1920 review (another doubling) but noting that ‘we cannot wait; we want these two doublings put together, we want a quadrupling at once’

Following a statement on Scotland,  Sir Bertram Windle, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, spoke of the special needs of Ireland, but also turned to the special contribution of the humanities.

May I emphasise the truth that we have won the War and the Victory on which civilisation depends, not less by moral than by material forces, and that the humanities, as taught in the schools and Universities, have had their own high and necessary contribution to make both to the national appreciation of the issues for which we went to war, and the good conscience with which we fought and endured our sacrifices.

He then turned on German education…

The perverted mentality of our foes which rendered possible their criminal assault upon civilisation was due to the predominant reliance in their systems of education upon material force, to their extremely narrow ideas of intellectual discipline, to the false philosophy of the State taught in their Universities for the last forty years and to their disregard of those moral influences in education of which the humanities are the record and enforcement.

Sir William Bragg, attending for the Universities Bureau, covered the immense contribution of University science to the war effort. In 2017 we might find some ambivalence towards perfecting explosives, targeting artillery or creating new gases, but this was 1918.  He spoke particularly about the struggle against submarines, how applied science had used an idea from pure science to detect them, and how the work would continue such that the submarine could be neutralised.  He said:

What time means in fighting the submarine it does not need any more words of mine to explain. The whole of the grants that we have been asking for to-day might be swallowed up in the sums you can think of in questions like that. The attitude that understands just what science can do and what it cannot do, and how to set it to work in England, and its function, the natural function of a University, to do it; the fruits of a University are seen in the attitude of the people towards knowledge.

Moreover, we must provide men filled with a desire to learn.  We must provide laboratories to teach them in and the staff to teach them.  And so I say that, when we think of the problems of this war and put them together in our minds, we recognise that to a very great extent it is to the development of the University that we must look for the solution to the problems of the future.

The Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law, was cautious in response, not able to pledge any money there and then. He was sympathetic to the ‘desire that the University should extend right down to the very bottom of our social system’ – here the minutes record ‘(Hear, hear)’.  When he concluded that proposals put to Government would be considered at least sympathetically – the record notes ‘(Cheers)’.

The President of the Board of Education, H A L Fisher, the former Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield, reiterated that the Government would consider their proposal carefully.

I am convinced – and my conviction has been deepened by the impressive mass of testimony which I have heard to-day – of the necessity of a very much more liberal assistance from the State to the higher learning in this country. (Cheers.) And I am equally convinced, from my long connexion  with Universities, of the great value of preserving University autonomy. (Cheers.)

The mechanism for distributing funds, keeping the notion of a quinquennial grant, was entrusted to the University Grants Committee who reported to the Treasury and not to the Board of Education.    The evolution of state support for British Universities could now quicken pace.  The war has slowed down the development of state support, but it demonstrated, as the Deputation showed, how valuable Universities could be to the country.
It should be noted, as Fisher did, that although the Universities were united in wanting more funds, they were divided on the issue of how to handle different costs of degree courses and the fees associated with them.



Chief Executive’s pay: a provocation

Lord Adonis has provoked a discussion on Vice-Chancellors’ pay.  Follow his tweets and you’ll see that he moves from the issue of tuition fees to the twin issues of the length of degree courses (which unwisely he linked to long summer holidays for academic staff) and VC’s pay.  There have been comprehensive rebuttals of the holidays issue – (see the Plashing Vole here) but not so obviously on VC’s pay.

This is not a defence of Vice-Chancellor’s pay.  This is not even an attempt to explain all the different facets that make up the reason why Vice-Chancellors pay has increased (one issue – the transfer market for ‘successful’ VCs  – I’ve touched on before).  I just want to touch on an aspect of the change:  that universities are now in a complex ‘market’ situation, and you can start to understand why remuneration committees are getting excitable about recruiting or retaining good Vice-Chancellors.

Universities have always competed for students, staff and resources.  Oxford and Cambridge Colleges built new accommodation blocks in the 18th Century to attract the sons of nobility.  Our central clearing house for admissions is a testament to the competition for the best applicants, even when demand severely outstripped supply.  The rhetoric around these markets has increased however.   Universities have struggled in the past, and the history of mergers hints at those past difficulties.  Starting with the talk of avalanches, we now see market forces at play – the VC at Huddersfield has launched a voluntary severance scheme citing:

“Once again the higher education sector faces many challenges – private providers are being encouraged to enter the marketplace, there is uncertainty about fees and our competitors are being increasingly aggressive in their student recruitment tactics. All this must influence how we shape our strategy for the next few years.

“To ensure that we maintain and develop our place within the market we have begun a process of closely analysing the provision we offer and this will continue into the future.

Different generations will no doubt understand aggressive student recruitment tactics differently; the first prospectus was probably seen as being a bit pushy, certainly De Montfort’s first TV ad was.  The point is that universities’ position as a safe public sector organisation is now under threat, even to the point of ‘market exit’.

One core argument why private sector pay is higher than in the public sector is risk.  In the private sector staff are hired and fired more easily, companies close or are taken over.  As a company can be more volatile, senior managers take greater risks, and should be rewarded.   Universities are not businesses, and comparisons are invidious, but, just for fun, here’s a quick comparison.

RM Plc

Let’s look at RM plc; a ‘major provider of resources, software and services to the education sector’.  RM has had some difficult years as they’ve transitioned out of providing hardware for schools into other services.  RM is heavily dependent on education spending, the bulk of which comes from public sources.  It employs 1800 people of whom 600 are based in India.    Its revenue for the year to November 2016 was £167.6m.


RM’s remuneration policy is set out in its annual report.

The Policy is designed to attract, retain and motivate Directors and senior employees, both to achieve the Group’s business objectives and to deliver outstanding shareholder returns. To achieve this, RM’s Remuneration Policy aims to provide ‘median’ reward compared to comparator groups when acceptable levels of performance have been delivered. For the achievement of outstanding performance, it aims to deliver ‘upper quartile’ remuneration compared to comparator groups.

Helpfully the policy also says it avoids excessive risk taking by executives just to try and maximise their own personal returns.  The chief executive received total remuneration of £655k in the year to Nov 2016 (this includes shares – which accounts for why the sum is significantly down on the total of £1246k in 2015 when he got £749k worth of shares).

University of Bath

The University of Bath employed 2800 staff in the year ending July 2016, and had an income of £263 million.  Clearly it is also dependent on direct and indirect public funding for education and research, but its income has been going up each year, and it is exceeding its targets for surplus generation.


We’ve all seen that the Vice-Chancellor got paid £451k in the year to July 2016, and Lord Adonis pointed out that benefits in kind and external income probably carried that to over £500k.  Although Bath is a successful university, no doubt the attention the news got is because it is not one of ‘leading’ universities (©Russell Group).

The University of Bath isn’t a company, and there’s no suggestion that you could interchange its chief executive with that of RM Plc.  But the chap at RM got paid £200k more in 2016 for running a company with 1000 fewer staff and £100m less revenue/income than Bath.


Lord Adonis rounded on the University of Bath in the House of Lords.  He noted that Bath was a ‘mid-ranking university’ and as the bulk of its funds came directly or indirectly from Government, they should have a say in the pay levels.

… the highly paid should set an example, particularly at a time of pay restraint. The only example the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath is setting to her staff is one of greed.

If the VC at Bath getting £451k is ‘greed’, then why isn’t the same tag applied to the CEO at RM?  Maybe Lord Adonis would think it is, but I think that’s unlikely.  Lord Adonis is a board member at RM and sits on the remuneration committee.  You’d have to assume that he’s signed up to their remuneration policy, and doesn’t think that the CEO getting £655k – a large part coming from school budgets – is setting a bad example.

CEO pay is a general problem.  It cannot be justifiable that their work is valued so much more highly than the work of others in their organisations.  That’s not to say that  there shouldn’t be something of a differential as greater responsibilities are taken on, but not at so steep a gradient.  Universities should push back against the corporate model, no doubt advocated by governors with experience of company boards, against the inflated wages for the CEO/VC.








Disrupting Academic Dress: The Girls’ Own Paper

For most universities graduation brings the only occasion that academic dress is worn.  In the main this is an occasion that requires a hire company as graduands aren’t going to need it again.  Universities tend to hire it for their staff, so most don’t own a set.  This has meant a fairly stable economy for the academic dress hire companies; growth in the sector has seen a rise in the number of institutions and ceremonies.

This looks like a stable business, after all Ede & Ravenscroft have been in business since 1689.  One new company, Marston Robing, have branched out into offering extra services such as children’s graduation gowns.  In his affectionate  summary of the fun of graduation, Paul Greatrix notes that there’s now a disruptive company Graduation Attire, offering a service direct to the graduate.


No doubt this will challenge some university ceremony organisers – the ties that a university has with its gown provider are often very long, and as Paul notes, there are challenges in getting the colours or patterns just right.  Dig out the academic dress regulations for your university and you’ll find a set of exacting requirements (helpfully collated by the wonderful Burgon Society here).  Although the description of gowns and hood may look similar in principle, look carefully and you’ll soon see that the claret and blue combinations for PhDs at Nottingham and Southampton are as distinctive as the claret and blue combinations for Aston Villa and West Ham.   There’s a disclaimer offered by Graduation Attire:

Whilst our hoods are normally very suitable for use at Graduations, we are always slightly cautious about recommending this where we are not the Official Robe maker. Usually a University will have a contract with an official supplier and you may not be allowed to cross the stage if you are not wearing full and correct academic dress. Our hoods will conform to the regulations involved but may differ in shade from those provided by the Official Robe Maker and this may make you look different from your colleagues as you cross the stage. Since it is your responsibility to ensure you wear the correct academic dress at your Graduation and it is such an important day for you and your guests, we strongly recommend you explore all options with the Official Robe Maker first.

Although having an ‘Official Robe Maker’ makes sense, it’s not obligatory.  In Oxford, where academic dress features much more in the daily life of the university, there is no monopoly provider.

University Hoods and How to Make Them

But what if there was another way of disrupting the monopoly?

The Girls’ Own Paper launched after women had won the right to enter examinations at English universities, and its advice column carried useful details on how to be admitted etc.  More fabulously, they had a stupendous article which noted that women had ‘an equal right to disport themselves in the distinctive hood of their degree whensoever and wheresoever they may deem fit’ (Vol1 no36).  But, they noted, there was the problem of the costliness of these articles.  The answer was that the ‘cost may be greatly reduced by making at home’ and that the paper would ‘place within reach of our girls an additional means of bestowing a most useful and acceptable gift upon father, brother or cousin’.

The article gives a history of academic dress, and sets out the various different colours of the hoods, each denoting the different degree.  The reader is advised to see an example of a hood before ordering their silk as the colours are unique: ‘Palatinate purple [Durham] is a pale tint, more nearly approaching the mauve or lilac of a milliner, yet not quite like either of these’.  The texture is also described: ‘the glossy black silk used as alining to the Divinity hoods is the bright glacé silk, in popular use for ladies dresses before the rage for dull, heavy cords set in.

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The Cambridge MA Hood

Then comes the instructions on how to actually make them.    Having laid out your black silk, a white silk lining then laid on it, with a further black binding (details available on request).

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The Oxford hood

The Oxford version is much less complicated (one of those rare occasions when Oxford is less complicated than anything).  The BA hood being lined with fur and the MA hood with crimson silk.  The BMus and BCL hoods are made of an ‘ordinary blue corded silk, such as is used for ladies dresses, of not too pale a shade’.

Equipped with these instructions, and hopefully an existing hood to cut an accurate pattern from, the author hopes and believes that ‘by a careful study of these directions a very successful hood may be made’.

The admission of women to British universities was the most extraordinarily disruptive act.  It’s dangerous to assume the motives of the editors of the Girls Own Paper, but I like to think this article is being both practical and also wonderfully subversive.  Yes; women could make hoods for their fathers and brothers, but also they could now ‘don those bright distinctive badges of their well won honours’ for themselves.  Good luck if you want to make your own hood – but just reflect on how marvellous it is that so many people can now ‘disport themselves in the distinctive hood of their degree whensoever and wheresoever they may deem fit’.


TEF and the Controlled Reputational Range

One core function of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to celebrate teaching in our universities and other providers.  The publication of the results of the second round have been widely discussed in the sector, with some inevitable media coverage of what it means to be given the ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ levels, particularly whether those providers are second or third rate.  But, for all my concerns about TEF, I wonder if there is a message that the sector should take away from this process – that it confirms the continued existence of the Controlled Reputational Range.

One of the concepts that Sir David Watson explored in his writing was that of the Controlled Reputational Range.  This was the notion that in UK Higher Education, although there could not be exact parity between all universities, there was a framework that meant that no institution was able to behave so badly that it damaged the overall reputation of the sector.  He described it in 2002, but returned to it several times.

Watson not only described the range, but he did much to bring it into effect.  He was closely involved in the merger of the two HE sectors in 1992, working on the funding arrangements for the new sector and more prominently on the quality assurance of the new sector.  The 1992 merger, particularly the awarding of university title to all the polytechnics and two colleges, caused much alarm.  Quality assurance was more systematic on the PCFC side; a function of both CNAA and HMI regimes.  The autonomous universities on the UFC side had a better public perception of their quality, but not necessarily their quality assurance.   The regime of Teaching Quality Assurance – which later became Subject Review – was vital in calming down nerves about a unified sector which suddenly looked as if it had jumped from an elite to a mass system.  The former UFC universities did better than might have been expected, generally achieving a higher number of ‘excellent’ judgements, but the PCFC side held up well.  By 2001 it was clear that the mass inspection system had played its role, and it was dropped in favour of Teaching Quality Information (TQI).  You could argue TEF is the apotheosis of TQI.

TEF accentuates the difference between providers with the Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, but the analysis done by both WonkHe and THE shows that these judgements are not based on the metrics alone.  Some Silver providers have ‘better’ outcomes on the benchmarked metrics than those awarded Gold.  Ranking using z-scores accentuates the difference between providers, but the benchmarking closes the gap in performance overall.  I think this shows that the controlled reputational range has worked; clearly universities recruiting highly prepared students have better absolute outcomes, but universities have exceeeded expectations across the reputational range.

Given that higher education has always been wider than those institutions with university title or access to government funding, the TEF does show how the new registration regime with OfS may help to maintain the reputational range.  The write-up for Moorlands College achieving a provisional grade might be slightly over the top, but being in the TEF will be a new marker of quality in the sector.  Those alternative providers with sufficient data to be graded achieved each of the three levels.

The funded part of the HE sector was subject to some very considerable, if sometimes invisible, regulation through their data.  HEFCE rules on, say, completion drove institutional behaviour.  The TEF may have a similar effect.  That is why the review must look at the data chosen for the exercise as it will drive performance – probably even for universities who you might have thought could shrug off a ‘bronze’ award.  Of course, if we could just drop the pretence that the TEF was actually about teaching excellence and abandon the gimmicky grading system (and the further rankings coming from it), then it could be a light touch system of ensuring that providers stay within that controlled reputational range.