A few days ago, we imagined how the first conversation between a new Universities Minister, should there be one after the election, and his most senior official might go.
Here, Dr Dean Machin, Strategic Policy Adviser at the University of Portsmouth, imagines the same conversation taking a rather different course.
Minister: So what is our most urgent issue?
Senior Private Secretary (SPS): The Teaching Excellence Framework.
Minister: What’s that?
SPS: An assessment of which universities are better at teaching. It is quite complicated but we looked at some data from the National Student Survey, from universities’ graduate employment rates and their drop-out rates. Each university was also invited to send in their own written submission. An independent panel then rated them all as Gold, Silver or Bronze.
Minister: Independent you say … Why are we doing this?
SPS: Because universities get a lot of public money. Students worry about whether they get value for money, and no one really knows who is good at teaching. Students – and their parents – seem to care about this.
Minister: Is it controversial?
SPS: Which university did you attend?
Minister: The LSE.
SPS: Then yes.
Minister: But do all universities hate it?
SPS: Some do, others don’t. The sector accepted it because we made it clear that it is the only way they would get fee increases.
Minister: I see … can we delay it until I understand it?
SPS: We will need a reason.
Minister: I’m new.
SPS: Unfortunately that doesn’t count – although it might mean you don’t get blamed for it.
Minister: Who might blame me?
SPS: The universities that do badly and worry about the effects.
Minister: Do I care about that?
SPS: Not yet but Number 10 always worries that Ministers go native, especially after a few good dinners at High Table.
Minister: So delaying it might look like I have caved in to the universities on week one?
SPS: Not all universities – probably just the Russell Group. … Or it might look like a u-turn … or that you think the results are wrong … or that you think it was a bad idea in the first place.
One other thing minister … all the universities found out their own ratings this morning. But we’ve told them not to tell anyone until tomorrow.
Minister: So all universities know whether they are Gold, Silver or Bronze but, if we delay the TEF, no one else will.
SPS: Certainly students won’t.
SPS: My advice Minister is, if you think it is – or will look – bad get it over and done with. You might get credit for bravely defending someone else’s policy.
If you think it is good news … well, a good news story on week one as a Minister. … and Number 10 will like a good news story. You might even get on the Today programme.
Minister: But what will I say?
SPS: Let me get that piece of paper ….
- The TEF challenges the status quo…
- Some universities must up their game, they have relied on their reputation too much…
- The TEF will help parents and students make better decisions …
- It is not right for universities to know their rating but not students…
- And that once the dust settles, people will find it hard to believe there was ever a period when universities’ teaching was not officially assessed.
Minister: Right, let’s do it.
SPS: Yes, Minister.