Mark Fuller

Associate Director (HE)

@Markhf76

In the short time since its publication the Higher Education Green Paper has already prompted a vast amount of analysis and discussion about the viability of the measures it proposes and the potential impact they will have on the sector. The higher education press and blogs have been ablaze with experts offering up their opinions, the nationals are providing an outlet for the thoughts of academic celebs, and the conference circuit is already working to unpick every aspect of the Government’s proposed reforms.

This is unsurprising. While still subject to much consultation and refinement, the measures set out in the Green Paper have the potential to be transformative. The fundamental principles of research, teaching and knowledge exchange are unlikely to be challenged, but a new regulatory regime, possible funding changes and a rapid emergence of new ‘providers’ will create a new dynamic for decision making in universities.

However, there has been relatively little discussion of what the proposals could mean for the comms professionals charged with forging and managing university reputations. The fact is that the Green Paper opens up an opportunity for them, with the prospect of challenging the perceived hierarchy of quality in the sector now a distinct possibility.

It’s a common refrain from Vice Chancellors and marketeers across the sector that despite all evidence to the contrary, perceptions about which are the best (and worst) institutions remain stubbornly tied to three – flawed – heuristics.

First, league table placings. Hugely influential league tables are compiled by bundling up selective measures of success – with most having a bias towards research indicators – and using the collective scores to list institutions in order of perceived excellence. Those that excel in areas not covered by the relevant criteria tend to lose out.

Second, the era in which an institution was founded plays a part. The rule of thumb here is that the ancient seats of learning sit at the top of the tree, with the redbricks of the early 20th Century sitting just beneath them, closely followed by the Robins inspired institutions of the 1960s. The former polytechnics that gained university status in the early 90s are commonly perceived to sit at the bottom. The net result is an unfair favouring of historical over contemporary success.

Finally, mission group membership is often viewed as an indicator of quality. Mission groups play a useful role as vehicles through which institutions with overlapping interests can speak to Government with a shared voice. However, they are commonly misconceived by many outside of the sector – particularly the mainstream media – as accreditation mechanisms, with membership of (for instance) the Russell Group being an official stamp of distinct excellence.

While each of these heuristics offers a degree of value when it comes to determining the qualities of individual institutions, the fact that they are so often seen as definitive is a source of frustration to many in the sector. Reputation matters – not just for the obvious needs of student recruitment, but for being able to attract new members of faculty, broker relationships with industry and grow influence with policy makers. Institutions that have their reputations pegged to thinking short cuts that defy rational explanation justly feel aggrieved.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) proposed in the Green Paper offers a chance to challenge some of the received wisdom. While there are a lot of gaps that still need to be filled, the direction of travel seems to be towards establishing four ‘tiers’ of teaching excellence – the first being a base level of QAA-measured competence that all should be expected to sit within. The intention seems to be to use the tiered structure as a way of allocating variable fee caps – with those that sit within the higher tiers given free reign to charge the highest tuition fees. However, as many have pointed out, the levels of variation look set to be marginal at best. The real prize on offer could well be the reputational capital that a ‘Tier 4 for teaching excellence’ badge brings with it.

There are obvious issues with each of the individual metrics that will inform the TEF – the value of the National Student Survey (NSS) is much debated for example – but the sheer volume of differing indicators it looks set to aggregate is likely to ensure some degree of credibility.

There is of course a risk that the allocation of institutions into TEF tiers will simply reflect existing biases. But, there’s a long way to go yet (the full TEF structure is planned to be in place for 2017/18) and more than enough time to remain optimistic. Institutions that have long argued the case that the quality of their teaching and the student outcomes they support are not matched by the esteem in which they are held have a glimmer of hope. There’s never been a better chance to change the narrative about higher education quality in the UK. The communications challenge of the next two years is to make the most of it.