An extraordinary Union council meeting was held on January 10th with the specific purpose of discussing the response the student body and the Union representing them should adopt with respect to the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The meeting was also an opportunity to discuss other government efforts to assess the quality of higher education, with an attempt to introduce a motion calling for the boycott of the NSS. The motion was rejected due to having been submitted too late, but the wider theme of student evaluations being used to justify cost increases hung over the assembly for the remaining of the evening.
TEF is a new framework originally established by the Higher Education and Universities ministry to evaluate the quality of teaching at English universities, and adjust their funding accordingly. As part of TEF, every university is required to submit a short document outlining how exactly they ‘excel at teaching’, with input from students and the bodies representing them. This seems innocuous enough, however the introduction of the government’s new Higher Education and Research Bill (currently in the Chamber of Lords) linked the results obtained by universities in the TEF with new fee increases. Fee increases would be indexed on inflation, either at half the inflation rate for universities awarded a “meets expectations” rating, or at the full inflation rate for the other categories.
This put the Union in a difficult position, since it had previously adopted a policy not to support measures that would result in further fee increases, and against the marketisation of higher education: both stated objectives of the HERB. (Imperial was the only university in the country to approve of the 2011 fee tripling). Therefore, participating in the TEF could be seen as infringing on that policy.
On the other hand, good relations between the Union and the College have been key to several advances obtained by the students in the last few years. The College is asking the Union to co-write the TEF submission, a mark of goodwill that enables the students to have a real say (some universities reduced ‘student input’ to a couple hundred words on the submission according to ICU President Nas Andriopoulos).
After energetic discussions, the motion mandating the Union to engage with College on the TEF was finally passed with minor amendments, in a victory for the ICU President and the Deputy President for Education, Luke McCrone. However, the subject of tuition fees is bound to return to the limelight sooner or later, and the Union might have a tougher time defining the course of action to follow then.