Tuesday, 27 October 2015

It's not all about the TEF, you know

There’s been much speculation about the details of the Teaching Excellence Framework, but the forthcoming green paper on Higher Education will contain much more than that. A discussion yesterday at the AUA Partnerships network conference prompts me to take a closer look at one aspect of this.

Jo Johnson’s speech to UUK on 9 September contained the following:
"The green paper will cast a critical eye over the processes for awarding access to student support funding, Degree Awarding Powers and University Title.
We have already made a start by providing a new route for trusted new and smaller providers to grow their student numbers. We are also beginning to link student number controls to the quality of the provider, through a “performance pool” which will operate for 2016 to 2017.
But the green paper will consult on options to go further. Success in higher education should be based on merit, not on incumbency. I want to fulfil our aim of a level playing field for all providers of higher education.
Many of you validate degree courses at alternative providers. Many choose not to do so. I know some validation relationships work well, but the requirement for new providers to seek out a suitable validating body from amongst the pool of incumbents is quite frankly anti-competitive. It’s akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.
It stifles competition, innovation and student choice, which is why we will consult on alternative options for new providers if they do not want to go down the current validation route."
The basic point here is that without the power to award degrees, it’s tricky to be a provider of higher education. The practice of validation – a university agreeing that a curriculum and education designed and delivered by another organisation can lead to the award of a degree from the university – is a solution to this. (Note that validation is different from franchising – under franchising, the university owns the curriculum but outsources the teaching.)

There are 75 UK universities which are members of the Council of Validating Universities (CVU), which gives an idea of the scale of the practice. There isn’t (yet) a single definitive register of validated providers, but research conducted for BIS in 2013 counted 674 privately funded HE providers, most of which will have a validation relationship with one of more universities. So the ministers claim that “Many of you [remember, he was talking to Vice-Chancellors] validate degree courses at alternative providers” looks true. And it can be a decent business for universities, helping a faculty to balance its books.

The underlying cause of the minister’s ire – the need to find a way to empower new colleges in times of expanding higher education - isn’t new. The University of London fulfilled this function, via its external degree, in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century: many UK and overseas universities can trace their origins back to colleges offering tuition for the London external degree. The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) fulfilled this function for the polytechnic sector until it was wound up in 1993, after the polytechnics had been made into universities.

Can we tell what approach might be in the green paper? If we take the CNAA model, then the establishment of a new body to do this could be possible. But the creation of a new quango at a time when they are set to be culled seems counter to the spirit of the times (O tempora! O mores!). So the University of London model is the other alternative from history: perhaps designating an existing university as having a 'duty to validate', or creating another university which is only a validator?

There’s a moral hazard here, just as the minister perceives an anti-competitive hazard in current arrangements. The key to validation is the maintenance of academic standards, and if you’ve a duty to validate, then an important element of the validation relationship – that of judging the capacity of another institution to meet the right standards – is put at risk. Some of the outcomes of the QAA’s review of alternative providers show the problems here: some alternative providers are good, but there are also some very shoddy ones.

Is the minister’s argument rooted in specific concerns? It would interesting to know which alternative providers have complained, and which university has refused to validate. What were the specifics? Was the refusal justified? Or perhaps the validation fee was simply seen as too high? Unless we can see that it’s a market that is broken and can’t be fixed by regulation, then the creation of a new entity seems premature.

I’ll be interested to see what the green paper has to propose.


  1. You'll have seen Professor Grayling adding his voice to the pre-Green Paper noise - and his experience is right at the heart of the issue it will have to deal with.

    The 'London' model says: Here is the Curriculum - you teach it, we'll examine it.
    The 'Franchise' model says: Here is our Curriculum - you can modify it a bit for teaching, and you can examine it (we'll come to the exam board and do some moderation)
    The 'Validation' model says: What's your Curriculum - if it's consistent with our teaching strategies etc, we'll approve it and you can teach and assess it (we'll come to the exam board and maybe do some moderation)

    Grayling has moved from 'London' to 'Validation' (With Solent) as he wants his own curriculum. The 'validation' model was broadly what CNAA did - but it had lots of things to do to ensure the quality and involved a lot of university staff who were committed to standards in the Polytechnics and Colleges (as well as those staff themselves). Hard to see the same buy-in happening.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I'd forgotten (how could I!) NewCHums, but you're spot on with your analysis. The AUA conference had a good discussion on how CNAA seeded - in practice and staff - QAA - and the loss of human capital which we might see. I fear that things which should be taken slowly are being taken quickly; I don't think that the government is necessarily immoral, but it is certainly looking careless.