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TEF – what is it, where did it come from and how it might develop?

In the past 18 months a new acronym has been added to the higher education landscape in the UK – TEF. The TEF is the Teaching Excellence Framework, introduced by the UK Government in 2015 to “recognise and reward excellence teaching” and to balance the incentives offered to universities through the longstanding Research Excellence Framework. As is often the case with new policies, there are a range of reasons and rationales for the launch of the TEF. In part, it is the result of the rise in universities fees in England in 2012 and the need to demonstrate that students are receiving value for money. Equally, it was also a consequence of the declining real value of these higher fees to universities. They lobbied government for a further increase in tuition fees, and it came with a new quality assessment system attached. However, fees are only part of the story. There was a concern within government that universities did not consistently value teaching to the same degrees that they value research. The debate was also influenced by an academic study from the United States (Academically Adrift, Arum and Roska, 2011) that suggested that many students demonstrated little development in their critical thinking skills while at university. Translated into the question ‘how do we know if students are learning anything?’ it highlighted the problematic questions of how we can measure learning in a consistent and objective way.

So the TEF was announced by Government and after a number of rounds of consultation, is being rolled out. At the end of last year, Universities were provided with a centrally generated set of metrics, showing how they performed on a range of measures. These were compared to the expected benchmark performance for an institution with their student population characteristics and positive and negative flags indicated. Not surprisingly, this has been a controversial exercise. In part this is because of the metrics chosen. Many derive from the National Student Survey, which measures ‘student satisfaction’ rather than ‘student learning’. There are metric on employability based on students reported activities 6 months after graduation and there is a measure of student progression rates. All are presented for the whole population and presented as ‘split’ metrics to reflect differentials such as ethnicity, gender and disability. Critics argue that these are a narrow set of indicators that say little about the quality of teaching or student learning. Government accepts this, but counters that other indicators will be added in time and that there is no consensus within the sector on what alternative metrics might be preferred.

But the metrics are not the whole picture. Institutions are asked to submit a 15 page document that provides a commentary on their metrics and makes their case for excellence, which were submitted at the end of January. The question that the sector continues to ask is ‘what will be the relative balance in the evaluations between the metrics and the submissions?’ There are a range of views on this. Some point to sentences in the guidance that suggest that a set of metrics that are clearly above or below the benchmarks will determine the outcome regardless of the submission. Other suggest that the submission will have far greater significance and will be the primary basis of the decision. What we do know is that the judgements by the assessors (who are senior academics within the sector), will be go though perhaps 4 or 5 stages of moderation, before final decisions are made by the TEF panel. Institutions will be graded at three levels of excellence ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’. In time, the extent to which institutions will be able to raise fees will be differentiated by these rating, so they are more than just marks of esteem.

How TEF will evolve is a further question. The National Union of Students are hoping to undermine the NSS based metrics as part of their opposition to a policy that will see fees rise. Some institutions have threatened not to participate if their excellence is not recognised. But assuming that the policy survives and continues to develop, it is planned to include post-graduate assessment in due course and extend assessment from whole institution level to discipline level. As mentioned earlier, there are also a range of new metrics which might be added in time. If these can capture the quality of teaching and learning and rewards institutions where this is excellent, then the TEF will become worthy of its name and help to balance the incentives for research excellence. Indeed, if it incentivises universities to address the barriers that disadvantages many groups of students, TEF could be a tool of progressive social policy. On the other hand, if the system becomes captured by game playing tactics or outcomes are not regarded as reflecting the experiences of students on the ground, then it may just be another acronym for the historians.

Professor John Craig is Dean of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett University and Chairs the PSA Teaching and Learning Specialist Group. He was a member of the BIS Expert Group on TEF 2015-16.

The TEF is further explored in the reflection  ’Teaching Excellence Framework: a critical response and an alternative future‘ by Mike Neary, published in the UACES open access journal JCER.


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