Victory for #TEFoff, but now what?

Tom Murray-Richards

You may remember, in September, your FXU Presidents wrote a statement about both Universities potentially increasing fees from 2017/18, that can still be found here. The cause of these fee rises has come from the Higher Education and Research Bill, put forward by Jo Johnson (Boris’ bro) MP, who is the Conservative Minister for Universities.

The Bill is currently in the House of Lords, where a couple of significant amendments were added last night. The first (and less controversial) was to automatically register students as voters, and permit the data sharing allowed for this. This is massive news, and will be hugely positive in driving up student voter participation, which is obviously crucial to ensure our voices continue to get heard by government.

The second was to sever the link between the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and increased tuition fees. This produced jubilation on social media from Students’ Unions all over the country, but itself is not without concern. Broadly, this amendment means a couple of things – one, that it would now be effectively illegal for Universities to link increased fees to their rating in the TEF (which will be Gold, Silver or Bronze (blame the Olympics)), second, that the TEF rating could not have a bearing on how many international students a University could recruit. International students, with the significant proviso that they are not being used as a financial commodity, add so much to institutions, and demonstrate that Universities are places that welcome those from all backgrounds, as they should be.

Now, to the fees. This is a significant victory for the NUS (National Union of Students) who have been running a #TEFoff campaign, calling for the link between TEF and fees to be severed, basically exactly what this amendment does. This explains the widespread euphoria that engulfed my Twitter and Facebook last night. However, the amendment in itself does not mean the end of this debate, as it now has to go back to the House of Commons to be approved (which won’t be easy, as Jo Johnson (still Boris’ bro) is really committed to this idea and won’t let it drop easily, especially as it was a Conservative manifesto promise in 2015) and also means that Universities might be able to raise fees without linking this rise to anything at all. The Lords recognised last night that the TEF still has significant flaws (I agree), and as such it would be irresponsible to roll it out, linked to fees, immediately (I agree).

Whilst I have been quite clear that rising fees are not a good thing for students and that the metrics used in the TEF are not a good guide of Teaching Excellence, would I rather fees rose without a link to any metrics at all? Absolutely not. That’s why I am hesitant to throw my arms in the air.

We still don’t know what the Higher Education and Research Bill will look like when it finally comes out of Parliament, and we should be careful what we wish for until it finally does. This is also complicated by the fact that the Commons haven’t got a lot of time to be debating stuff at the moment – chiefly because they are occupied by May’s #BrexitMeansBrexit crusade. This is a significant victory for the Lords, and may turn out to be a significant victory for students too, but for the moment this still remains a hopeful wish rather than a jubilant reality.