Subject-level TEF: It’s about the programmes, stupid!

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After recently attending the Quality Strategy Network annual conference in Birmingham, it is clear that there is still a lot of opportunity for influencing the subject level TEF. This will run in pilot form 2017/18 with full implementation scheduled from 2018/19.

One purpose of the TEF is to provide better information for prospective students, as well as to improve the quality of teaching. It is easy to forget that students choose to do a programme at a university, they do not choose to do a subject. University quality assurance systems and processes are geared up for programmes, we collect data for programmes, and students give feedback on programmes (e.g. NSS). Of course, there are many programmes which are single subject, but increasingly we have interdisciplinary programmes which will make a subject-based TEF at best challenging, and at worst meaningless for such programmes.

I am concerned that a subject-level TEF will not meet the aim of providing students with better information. It might be ok for single subject programmes, but it might be misleading about interdisciplinary programmes or joint honours programmes as a proxy would need to be used. Furthermore, a subject-based TEF would be an extra burden for universities as new subject-based data will need to be generated and benchmarked, all contrary to the government’s stated aims. As a result, a subject-based TEF would struggle to get the necessary buy-in from universities and would be of little relevance to prospective students.

At the Quality Strategy Network, DfE stated that they are looking for feedback on what constitutes a ‘subject’. Quite simply, we need to rethink the subject-level TEF as a programme-level TEF.

I believe this could be fairly straightforward. Universities already run their own internal periodic programme reviews where an assessment panel including externals consider the quality and standards of a programme. These reviews are often a six year cycle but in some universities they already operate on a three year cycle which would be in line with the proposed three year TEF rating system. Data including student performance, satisfaction, graduate outcomes are all considered as part of the evidence base. The only real difference is that the judgements of internal programme reviews are not in the language of TEF – “meets expectations”, “excellent” and “outstanding” – but this should not be insurmountable.

With sufficient guidance and support for assessment panel members (internal and external), it ought to be achievable to make such review assessments external – we have, after all, a very successful and much envied external examiner system. A system of moderation could operate such that all judgements from internal programme reviews are provisional and are then submitted to smaller number of central TEF panels who will have oversight and make the final decisions. These central panels could be constituted as subject clusters, the number of which would need to be worked up, but I would advocate a relatively small amount.

I would also advocate the retention of the institutional TEF as well as this new, supplementary programme-level TEF, as students’ choices are influenced by institutional reputation as well as that of their programme. My key messages for DfE colleagues designing the evolution of the TEF are:

  1. Retain institutional-level TEF beyond 2017/18
  2. Include a programme-level TEF rather than a subject-based system
  3. Capitalise on existing QA systems and processes
  4. Devolve more responsibility for TEF programme assessment to Universities with central TEF panels providing moderation and making the final decisions on ratings.

Of course, there are a lot of details to be worked out and negotiations to be had, but focussing on programmes rather than subjects offers a simpler, more attractive and more meaningful solution for the further evolution of TEF.

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