Quality and Excellence – Can you spot the difference?

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The semantic differences between quality and excellence are about to be strained.

The TEF rules for year two have been published. A revised operating model for quality assessment was published by HEFCE in March 2016 and the Annual Provider Review (APR) was also invented. It will replace the six-yearly QAA HE review visits. The sector does not yet know the relationship between this and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

On first blush they look parallel and duplicative, but are they really the same? Perhaps they are the same answer to different questions. There can have been no intention that the APR should be duplicative of the TEF, of course, but that may just happen to be the result of the parallel evolution of each.

The TEF and the APR will both produce a rating, both ratings will be published on the higher education register of providers, both will have panels, both will rely on benchmark data to make judgements. HEFCE say they intend to use the same core student metrics for APR as those to be used for the TEF. Baseline quality as measured by the APR is to become a condition of TEF participation to then show excellence.

Any recognition of similarity has failed to produce a single proposal, so higher education providers have to hope the timetables, language and outcomes will cohere rather than confuse. The APR will be undertaken by HEFCE in England, who will also deliver the TEF, and by DfE in Northern Ireland.

There are at least some differences between APR and the TEF. HEFCE will undertake an APR for all providers they fund whereas TEF is something which providers can choose to participate in. There is a provider statement to contextualise the TEF data but this is not sought for the APR.

Ask how, with such similarities, the TEF and the APR can be separately sustained and the answer comes back in one of three forms. Firstly, that one is a quality assurance process and the other is concerned with measuring excellence (i.e. they measure different things). Secondly, that the APR will measure baseline quality and the TEF will measure excellence on top (i.e. they will measure the same thing at different levels). Or thirdly, the TEF is narrower in scope because unlike the APR it will only focus on teaching quality (i.e. one of a partial version of the other).

This interesting search for narrative difference is clearly exercising the minds of the designers in DfE and HEFCE. The explanation takes up eleven paragraphs of the TEF2 specification. The genesis of both TEF and APR was not the same and they have fallen into different parts of HEFCE to deliver. Similarity in the data and ratings suggests the most likely explanation is they will largely measure the same thing at different levels. Intuitively we know this is likely; quality assurance is a route to excellence just as the APR will be a route into the TEF. If excellence is the state of possessing good qualities to an eminent degree, then APR and TEF are going to be inseparable.

We are told the APR will have three positive outcomes (‘Meets Requirements’, ‘Meets requirements with conditions’ and ‘Pending’) and the TEF co-incidentally will also have three ratings which were to be ‘Meets Expectations’, ‘Excellent’ or ‘Outstanding’. This invited too many questions about whether TEF ‘Meets Expectations’ was the same as the APR ‘Meets Requirements’? Could a positive result from APR make the TEF ‘Meets Expectations’ automatic or does the TEF re-name its bottom award to make it clearer that it would be an achievement above the APR baseline? To avoid that complexity the technical note has re-named the TEF outcomes as a medals table; Gold, Silver and Bronze.

Even if is left to others to debate whether the data used in the TEF or APR or medals are the right way to improve teaching and raise standards, or even whether students seek this metrification of their experience, the two measuring devices will still need to be calibrated.

HEFCE plan to publish detailed guidance on the QA requirements soon. It now appears too late to persuade decision makers that these processes should be combined. Given how closely they intersect it is inevitable we will be cross reading to spot the similarities and differences when the QA guidance comes out. Maybe quality and excellence are not the same; perhaps they are independent. The detailed proposals for APR may be one way of attempting to find out.

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