The Accident of Accessibility: How the Data of the TEF Creates Neoliberal Subjects, Liz Morrish

The stress occasioned by constant demands for academics to submit to evaluation has been well documented (Loveday 2018,; Morrish 2019,, nevertheless the bureaucratic appetite for surveillance is fed by the ease of accessing quantifiable data. This post looks at the repercussions for universities, students and academics of the chosen metrics of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) outlined below … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Morrish, Liz . 2019. “The Accident of Accessibility: How the Data of the TEF Creates Neoliberal Subjects.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (10): 77-80.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

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Editor’s Note: Liz Morrish kindly shared this article published originally on the LSE Impact Blog (our thanks also to LSE). This article responds both to a special issue of Social Epistemology on “Neoliberalism, Technocracy and Higher Education” edited by Justin Cruickshank and Ross Abbinnett, and Justin Cruickshank’s SERRC dialogue prompt “The Feudal University in the Age of Gaming the System.” To encourage further dialogue, Liz offers questions at the end of this piece to which readers should feel free to respond in the comments section, or in a reply for the SERRC. If so inclined, please contact Jim Collier—

T he stress occasioned by constant demands for academics to submit to evaluation has been well documented (Loveday 2018,; Morrish 2019,, nevertheless the bureaucratic appetite for surveillance is fed by the ease of accessing quantifiable data. This post looks at the repercussions for universities, students and academics of the chosen metrics of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) outlined below.

In 2016, the government published a White Paper ( on plans to reform higher education, Success as a Knowledge Economy (SKE). The brainchild of Jo Johnson, former minister for universities, it laid out a justification for the introduction of the TEF as the solution to a series of imagined faults with universities, such as ‘lamentable’ teaching, and a lack of ‘return on investment’ for graduates of some university courses ( (Adams 2015).

The selection of metrics for the TEF appeared arbitrary: student satisfaction with teaching, assessment and feedback (taken from the National Student Survey, NSS), continuation (retention) rates (taken from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, HESA) and a measurement known as Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO). These proxy measures have nothing to do with classroom teaching, and yet have been imbued with spurious validity.

David Beer (2016, writes that metrics measure us in new and powerful ways such that they order the social world and shape our lives. Metrics can appear neutral and necessary but, in the case of TEF proxy metrics, we can argue that their whole purpose is dirigiste. Since the introduction of tuition fees in 1999, successive governments of all hues have sought to reconfigure universities as instruments of market ideology. Advances in behavioural insight research have allowed governments to nudge the choices of its citizens in ways which are assumed to benefit the economy of the nation. Each of the TEF proxy metrics underpins this strategy: the NSS arose from the project to transform students into consumers; the retention rate metric was similarly designed to measure consumer appeal, even though it reflects more accurately the social advantage of the student body; LEO data became available with the passing of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act (2014, This legislation permits mining of individual tax records for integration with student loan and university degree records and enables the government to assess which courses produce graduates most able to repay their tuition fee loans. It becomes apparent, in the context of some of Jo Johnson’s remarks (Johnson 2015,; 2016a,; 2016b,, that the role of the TEF was to shift student choice towards STEM subjects which, on average, lead to higher-paying careers which the government judges to be more beneficial to the economy.

There are concomitant implications for academics whose labour is evaluated along new and unforeseen dimensions. They must now privilege the potential popularity of a subject before proposing to teach it. They must justify both new and current courses on the grounds of ‘employability’. And so, innovation in teaching and research is determined by appeals to economic value and the capricious choices of 18-year olds, rather than by the advance of knowledge or professional judgement of academics. Nevertheless, universities which fail to score highly on the TEF metrics risk being deemed ‘failing’ and the government may seek to pressure universities to close courses which do not deliver the right ‘outcomes’. These market reforms were skillfully packaged as enhancing student ‘choice. In fact, when the student is positioned as ‘rational consumer’, their voice has effectively been contained and subdued within predetermined parameters. Furthermore, market ideology and tenets of neoliberalism such as competition, choice and individual responsibility are all bolstered discursively throughout the SKE White paper and by repetition by politicians. This is examined in more detail below.

Cementing Neoliberal Ideology via Discourse

Significantly, the government avoids the word ‘university’, insisting that that there has been insufficient penetration of ‘the market’ in the higher education sector, and so in order to instil ‘competition’ and ‘choice’, the market must be opened up to new providers. Provider also implies a transactional function for universities – a kind of cash for credentials scenario in which the institution simply provides its product to its ‘customers’ in exchange for money.

Investment, and its cousin, return on investment (ROI). These are linked discursively with teaching quality in a way that implies that receiving information about the latter would in turn ensure a guarantee of the former: ​“The quality of teaching should be among the key drivers of a prospective student’s investment” ​(SKE Ch 2 para 8 p43). However, evidence reveals that there is little material correlation. Reports by the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyses the government’s Longitudinal Earnings Outcome data (Bellfield and Britton 2018,; Britton et al. 2016, ) show the outcomes-require-competition assumption to be a myth. The best predictors for graduate earnings (the likely meaning of investment here) is found to be parental income and prior attainment. Perhaps return on investment has been used deliberately to reposition higher education as a private, not a public good.

Although the government has claimed the TEF will empower students, there has been no resulting infrastructure which would ensure that the student choice is placed at the centre of university policy making. The hypocrisy of this claim was demonstrated in 2017. A great deal of manufactured outrage was expressed in right-wing newspapers when a University of Cambridge student, Lola Olufemi, expressed a request for the English department to more fully decolonise the curriculum (Khomami and Watt 2017,  Nor has recent higher education legislation or market discipline enabled a broadening of student choice when we consider that, since the implementation of the Browne Review funding system of tuition fees, there has been a precipitous decline in the availability of part-time route for undergraduate study.


What seems to be an arbitrary compilation of proxy data points has in fact been a calculated plan to refashion universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The accident of accessibility of particular metrics, inasmuch as they overlap with neoliberal priorities, has determined which data will serve as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The TEF audit was not prompted by concerns about quality. It was designed to control and incentivize universities towards a more pronounced concentration of business and science curricular provision. This ideology is primarily cemented via discourse which all participants are compelled to cite.

Contact details: Liz Morrish, Independent Scholar,


1. Supporters of the TEF/ REF and KEF will argue that these audits are fully justified given the huge public spend received by universities. Is audit around these functions inevitable then? Should academics resist this autocratic attempt to undermine their autonomy, arguing as Cruickshank does that ‘such changes cause objective harm to our ‘Being’ (2019, 337)?

2. Once in place, mechanisms of metric surveillance never seem to go away, however unpopular or questionable. The legitimacy of the TEF metrics have been convincingly disputed by scholars (see Dorothy Bishop’s blog, and famously, by the Royal Statistical Society ( Universities claim to be sites of rational argument and evidence. How can we proceed when our interventions are dismissed in such a careless fashion by government?

3. Given the points above, how can we persuade academic leaders and managers to resist false measures? Or, are they invested in what Richard Hall (this issue) identifies as colonisation and subsumption because this strategy renders academics more governable?


Adams, Richard. 2015. “‘Lamentable Teaching’ is Damaging Higher Education, Minister Warns.” The Guardian 9 September. Accessed 15 October 2018.

Beer, David. 2016. Metric Power. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Belfield, Chris and Jack Britton. 2018. “Using Graduate Earnings to Assess Universities.” Institute for Fiscal Studies. 11 June. Accessed 15 October 2018.

Britton, Jack, Lorraine Dearden, Neil Shephard. and Anna Vignoles. 2016. “What and Where You Study Matter for Graduate Earnings – but so Does Parents’ Income.” Institute for Fiscal Studies. Accessed 23 April 2017.

Cruickshank, Justin. 2019. “Economic Freedom and the Harm of Adaptation: On Gadamer, Authoritarian Technocracy and the Re-Engineering of English Higher Education.” Social Epistemology 33 (4): 337-354.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 2016. “Higher Education: Success as a Knowledge Economy – White Paper.” Accessed 15 October 2018.

Johnson, Jo.  2015. “Higher Education: Fulfilling our Potential.” Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Accessed 15 October 2018.

Johnson, Jo.  2016a. “Dyson University is a Wake-Up Call for Higher Education.” The Times. 4 November. Accessed 15 October 2018.

Johnson, Jo.  2016b. “Jo Johnson: Dyson Institute of Technology.” Department for Education blog. Accessed 15 October 2018.

Khomami, Nadia and Holly Watt. 2017. “Cambridge Student Accuses Telegraph of Inciting Hatred in Books Row.” The Guardian. 26 October. Accessed 15 October 2018.

Loveday Vik. 2018. “The Neurotic Academic: How Anxiety Fuels Casualised

Academic Work.” LSE Impact Blog.

Morrish, Liz. 2019. “Pressure Vessels: The Epidemic of Poor Mental Health Among Higher Education Staff.” HEPI Occasional Paper 20. May 2019.

Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act (SBEE). 2015. Accessed 15 October 2018.

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