By Josh Berlyne
Over 2,300 students have signed an open letter demanding that the University of Sheffield opts out of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). For the past month and a half, the SU-led Shef Better Than TEF campaign has been collecting signatures and raising awareness of the government’s proposed higher education (HE) reforms.
The HE reforms threaten the very existence of public higher education. Government have explicitly said that they will not step in if public universities collapse, while they are helping private companies into the market. All this is being done on the basis of almost no evidence, just the mantra “competition drives up quality.” Finally, the TEF purports to measure teaching on the basis of metrics which do not directly measure teaching quality. Universities that perform well on TEF will be allowed to raise their fees above the £9,000 threshold, and there have been recent hints that universities which perform badly on TEF will have restrictions on the number of international students they can take on. These are regressive policies.
Unlike most reforms, the TEF is optional—university bosses have the choice whether to opt in or out of the framework. Sheffield SU has been campaigning hard to convince the University to opt out. This is an uphill struggle, however.
Despite the fact that our Vice-Chancellor is vocally opposed to the HE reforms, and despite the fact that he supports free, fully-funded higher education, it is not in his material interests to take concrete action and opt out. When the SU officers presented the open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, his response was that we should collect more signatures. He wants a joint statement with the SU, and potentially to turn this into a national campaign. And yet he remains closeted about whether the University will opt out. It is entirely consistent, in his eyes, to campaign against the reforms while also participating in them.
This is because universities, run like businesses, must think of their short-term interests. It doesn’t matter that the long-term future of higher education is under threat. If they cannot raise their fees in the short-term, their budgets will be squeezed and life will get a little harder. Unions will get more militant. Students more angry. Top salaries might even need to be cut. No university wants to be the only one to opt out, so they will all opt in.
This is why an escalation of the campaign is necessary. An open letter is not enough – we need demonstrations and more. Thanks to demands from Free University of Sheffield activists, the campaign is being democratised—with strategy meetings open to all. We hope that this will encourage new activists to get involved, and give it the energy it very much needs to ramp up the campaign.