For students from working class backgrounds, hundreds of things about university can be off-putting. A huge factor however has to be having a large headline cost figure, which is always described as debt. Ultimately this makes university a terrifying financial prospect for many, even if the reality of how fees are paid is more manageable. The impact of this exclusion on social mobility is catastrophic in the job market which currently exists, where higher paid and socially valued work is often accessible only with a degree.
Last year’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is only going to make this problem worse. The TEF was originally proposed as a counter-balance to the heavily research based league tables, which can be an untrue reflection of student experience. This sounds like a good idea, until you look a little closer at exactly how the TEF works.
It is based partly on the NSS scores a university receives, and the employment statistics of graduates. Neither of these are a particularly good measure of teaching quality—various studies have shown the NSS can be skewed. This is through unconscious bias against women lecturers and lecturers of colour, as well as the fact that what makes a good lecturer may not be what makes you want to rate a lecturer highly on an anonymous survey. Employment statistics income bias the TEF towards universities with a highly rated “brand”—Oxford being one of them. As a result, the quality of teaching at a university has little to do with how it will score in the TEF.
But even if the TEF was a foolproof measure of the quality of teaching in universities, it is how the TEF is being used which is the really awful news for higher education. Because now, performance in the TEF will determine whether universities can raise their fees in line with inflation. After a few years, this means “elite” institutions like Oxford will end up costing much more than other universities.
As a student, already worried about money, the thought of applying to more ambitious and more expensive university is doubly off-putting, and fewer people from working class and low income backgrounds are likely to risk applying to “better” universities. The impact on social mobility is only going to get worse, and the increase in fees goes on whilst at university, because they can go up during your degree. Oxford has already confirmed that this will happen for current first years (no other years though, thanks to the hard work of OUSU sabbatical officers).
Higher education should be accessible to all and must lose its elitism. Part of losing this elitism has to come from an end to prioritising higher education over other paths in life, such as apprenticeships. But these don’t need to come at the cost of higher education. We need to build a society that cares for everyone’s development, and if money wasn’t wasted on arms subsidies and taxes for the rich weren’t cut, that would look a lot more possible—ultimately it is possible, as multiple European countries prove.
What can be done to defend our universities? Firstly, if you are a finalist, boycott the NSS. Do not fill it in. If it gets under 50 per cent response rate, it is invalid and the government cannot use it in the TEF. Get your JCR to pass a motion condemning the TEF, and action your OUSU representatives to vote in line with this. Like the ‘Free Education Oxford’ page on Facebook, and come along to our events. Lobby your MPs, in Oxford or at home. Above all, keep spreading the word and speaking out about the very dangerous future that awaits higher education.