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Except for viewers in Scotland – or not? The TEF north of the border

December 2, 2015

“… and then there’s the TEF,” said a friend working at a Scottish university to me this week, looking ahead to the pressures they anticipated in the future.

But is there?

Comment pieces, official statements and debates on the TEF – what it might mean, how it might work – are all over the specialist media and blogs based in England.  There’s lots of disagreement about both those points, but a general agreement that it will matter, and will change things in some important way.

Of course, this has nothing to do with Scotland.  The TEF is about teaching funding and tuition fee setting and therefore (unlike the REF) functions in a wholly devolved policy area.  Move along, etc.

Except that in another Scottish university, the word is that the senior management line is that the TEF is coming.  There’s a good reason for that – any institution that regards itself as competing for students over an area wider than Scotland, and is interested in where it sits in UK league tables, will be worried about an inability to be compared on similar terms.  Some people might want to argue about whether that should be the case – but it would be naive to ignore the pressure this exerts.

So here’s the interesting thing.  I cannot find a statement on the Green Paper in general or the TEF specifically, even just a nod towards the fact it has been announced, from the Scottish Government, Universities Scotland or any individual institution: not even from UCU in Scotland.  There  may be some sort of debate happening here, but if so it well out of sight of most of us.

Only NUS has said anything (it is against the Green Paper), including:

To be perfectly honest, it’s disappointing that Scottish universities haven’t so far come out more strongly in defence of the distinct and strong approach to quality we have in Scotland, and they—in fairness—have done much to secure, in partnerships with sector bodies and students. And those same sector bodies, held in high esteem by all in our sector, now stand at very real risk from the potential scrapping of their English counterparts.

Our universities shouldn’t hide behind weak excuses of international comparison or—far worse—marketing. It would be far more damaging if Scottish universities went along with an inappropriate framework simply as a means to see ever increasing fees for RUK or international students.

Instead, we hope that the Scottish Government, Scottish universities, and the wider sector, will join us in rejecting the premise of the Green Paper and what it stands for. Now’s the time we all need to stand up for the distinct approach we’ve taken, and the even more distinctive approach that lies ahead of us, as a result of these damaging reforms in England.

It’s certainly the case that the Scottish Government is not usually so slow in coming out to condemn English higher education policy.

Will the SG want to use the TEF in the same way as its southern counterpart? Unlikely:  it already allows Scottish universities to set whatever level of fee they want for rUK (and overseas) students  without having to jump through any particular hoops or facing any specific legal cap (see here).

Will they embrace the TEF for other reasons?  Maybe, but probably not.  Would they actively prevent Scottish universities from opting in? That’s not so clear.  Will Scottish universities be offered that choice  by those running the new TEF, and if not and they have to argue for it, will the SG back them?  Here it all gets more complicated.

You could hardly blame the government or the sector in Scotland for wanting to convene in private while they work all this out.  It wouldn’t be the first time a major policy in English HE with potential cross-border impact had arrived without much notice. NUS is almost certainly right to find the silence on the TEF in Scotland telling.

What’s remarkable, though, is that almost a month in, there’s no sign that anyone has asked Scottish Ministers, the Funding Council or Universities Scotland for a view – even if only to get a holding response that acknowledges there needs to be some thought about the Green Paper’s cross-border implications and some commitment to a degree of collective public process in working them through. We might at least have hoped for an expression of support for retaining an arms’ length funding body: at the moment, there’s no way of knowing whether or not Scottish Ministers are watching the demise of HEFCE with a thoughtful expression.

The risk is that while there’s a public debate south of the border which might affect the detail, if not the principle, of policy, in Scotland  any Green Paper-driven policy here will be quietly constructed by a few people behind closed doors and there will be no engagement cross-border on the detail of the TEF  – in contrast to the design of the REF and its predecessors, where the Scottish Funding Council and Scottish academics were influential players.

NUS Scotland are right to highlight the uncharacteristic silence north of the border on developments down south. If my friend is right, and the TEF is coming north to some or all institutions, then it would be better for that happen after a serious and open debate, rather than by an ad hoc process of rowing in behind.









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