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UK’s alternative providers handicapped by TEF data metrics

Independent higher education providers in the UK are concerned that the ‘provisional bronze’ awarded to them under the government’s contoversial new Teaching Excellence Framework could damage their reputation and recruitment efforts.

Traditionally offering highly specialised courses, alternative providers are concerned a TEF 'provisional bronze' rating could damage their reputation at home and abroad. Photo: Point Blank Music School

"There could be negative connotations with a 'provisional bronze'"

TEF gradings of bronze, gold and silver are devised using core metrics from the National Student Survey and the Destinations of Leavers in Higher Education and retention rates. The results will determine the provider’s fee caps and its students’ access to government loans funding.

However, alternative providers have historically been exempt from reporting data to the Higher Education Statistics Agency or participating in the NSS because they are private entities.

In response, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has created the ‘provisional TEF award’ for providers who do not have suitable data to inform the assessment. The rub for APs is the lack of data means they will only receive a baseline ‘provisional bronze’ award until they have sufficient data.

The ‘provisional award’ will be given for just one year (instead of three) then providers can reapply. But communication of what exactly ‘provisional bronze’ means, alternative providers say, will be key.

“It could potentially damage reputations as people don’t understand that it is an award for those providers without metrics at all”

“It could potentially damage reputations as people don’t understand that it is an award for those providers without metrics at all,” said Joy Elliot-Bowman, policy and public affairs manager at Independent HE, the representative body of alternative providers in the UK.

According to HEFCE, a handful of alternative providers have enough data to apply to the framework. But, many are unlikely to even enter because they’d rather not be on the list than be rated at a lower level.

Providers with international brand names and reputations will probably choose to remain outside of the framework all together, predicted Elliot-Bowman.

Others are likely to delay their applications until the data currently being collected on their institutions is robust enough. TEF rules allow for one year of grading for every one year of metrics submitted.

“They want the same opportunity as universities who have 11 years of NSS and DLHE and HESA data to review before deciding to enter TEF,” said Elliot-Bowman.

Price points will figure into the decision of whether or not to apply as well. APs who stay outside of TEF won’t have access to additional student loan funding while APs with designated loan funding courses who apply for TEF will be able to allow their students access to loans of £6,000 plus inflation – around £300 more.

“The ones that desperately need the fee uplift because they charge just above £6,000, will apply for the provisional award, because it is best for their students to have additional loan funding,” explained Elliot-Bowman.

Gordon Sweeney, head of education at Point Blank Music School in London, said having access to additional student loan funding through provisional TEF awards is an advantage for students at alternative providers, but added: “I think the main concern surrounds the wording of how the provisional TEF status is given and that there could be negative connotations with a ‘provisional bronze’.”

Sweeney said dropping ‘bronze’ from the award all together would be a welcome solution. “Call it a provisional TEF award. There’s going to be a brief statement that comes with the TEF award anyway, so why not just change the wording saying it’s the maximum, the best that this provider can do with the metrics involved,” he said.

HEFCE will publish TEF ratings on UCAS and Unitstats and is encouraging providers to publish their TEF gradings on their own sites. Inevitably international students will see the ratings as well.

However, some APs have questioned the influence TEF gradings will ultimately have once they’re announced at the end of May 2017, arguing that a strong brand and reputation will matter more than negative reactions to baseline gradings.

“The government has bent backwards to try to get as many alternative providers in as possible”

There are also mounting concerns among APs as well as publicly funded research- heavy institutions that the TEF will be used in the Home Office’s differentiation plan to determine which institutions are allowed to recruit international students.

New visa rules are set to be released for public consultation in January, but how TEF results could affect a provider’s ability to recruit internationally is yet to be seen. “We’re worried about the future and visa differentiation by TEF because of the data problems,”  said Elliot-Bowman.

“We’re going to be having these data problems for five, six, seven years as the data settles, much like universities had when they were first starting out with NSS and DLHE. It is unfair to disadvantage independent providers because of exclusion from the data system.”

According to a May 2016 report by research agency IFF, there are some 700 alternative providers operating in the UK with international students making up a quarter of enrolments.

Chris Millward, director of policy at HEFCE, argued the system is inclusive of the whole higher education system. “The government has bent backwards to try to get as many APs in as possible,” he said pointing to the allowance for one year of grading for one year of metrics.

“We’re working with a number of alternative providers to try and get their data to a level that means they can participate,” he said.

“The idea of the provisional award is it would enable APs to benefit from the tuition fee loan uplift and also to be part of the system,” he added, conceding that HEFCE “needs to work together with Independent HE and DfE on the communication of the provisional award so it’s perceived in the right terms”.

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