Well informed? Research, teaching and TEF

What does research-informed teaching (RIT) look like? University Alliance and the Higher Education Academy have released a report on a subject with a long history, but which is very much of-the-moment in current policy debates. The Stern Review of the Research Excellence Framework has shown that government policymakers want to identify and encourage research-informed teaching (RIT) through both the REF and its teaching counterpart.

At the UA/HEA report launch, the Department for Education’s Iain Mansfield (Wonkhe Powerlist number 27) said that TEF submissions – while the exercise will make judgements about overall institutional performance – would benefit from statements about RIT. He said that those statements would be most compelling where initiatives were demonstrably institution-wide.

Now here’s the rub: do universities really have institution-wide approaches to RIT which are transforming the experience for all of their students? Research activities and performance vary widely within institutions, and while there is capacity within all disciplines for RIT, some are more creative than others in the pursuit and delivery of RIT to students.

Not until the TEF moves to its subject-level variant can there really be any meaningful evaluation of RIT. How can an institution describe in its narrative submission – alongside all the other points it will be trying to convey to the assessors – that there is a clearly defined and delivered RIT strategy in every discipline? Usefully, the Stern review of the REF moves away from personal submissions (the selection of individuals with the highest quality research outputs) to a more collective approach.

The TEF should use an aggregation of academic programmes for its subject-level iteration which maps to the same classification system as REF. If TEF and REF are evaluated in the same broad disciplinary units then it will be more straightforward for institutional narratives about RIT, and other links between teaching and research, to be illustrated. And for those responsible for the oversight and management of academic activities, there would be the capacity to evaluate performance with these two exercises in tandem rather than try to map out the details of their overlap.

There’s a further problem when it comes to RIT, and that’s how you measure it. TEF will have measures for a wide range of factors but none could be considered a good proxy for RIT. As the UA/HEA report shows, using a case study model provides colour to the topic and stimulus for considering this important question, but it doesn’t show how the impact of RIT can be measured systematically. The HEA student engagement survey has questions directly related to RIT, though not all institutions participate and so the results are outside the TEF’s defined metrics (whereas National Student Survey results are included).

And then we have the problem – and if you’re directly involved in teaching or research, you’ll be shaking your fist already – of the definition of RIT. There’s a meaningful, if slightly distracting, debate about whether teaching is, should or can be research-informed, research-led or research-oriented (and other variants are available). And what do we mean about research? Are we assuming that the research needs to be that which is capable of being submitted to the REF, or is there a more liberal definition available? The HEA’s engagement survey questions talk about “current research in your subject” but surely there’s also a place for engagement with cutting-edge industry practices which have a significant beneficial impact on student learning. Nonetheless, Graham Gibbs has argued that “it is difficult to demonstrate that students benefit from their teachers also being researchers”.

Fortunately, the definition used in the TEF criteria is broad: “The learning environment is enriched by student exposure to and involvement in provision at the forefront of scholarship, research and/or professional practice.” It may be for the TEF assessors to evaluate whether “exposure to” or “involvement in” are meaningful phrases, and whether there will be priority given to the REF-able research over scholarship or professional practice.

As with so much of the TEF, we will have to wait and see the extent to which RIT – or any other element – features in the judgement-making. And we’ll have to wait until well after the results of the next REF to know whether the aspiration of building REF/TEF links has been met. There are good reasons – practical as well as political – to find ways of aligning the excellence evaluation exercises, but research-informed teaching is just one piece of a difficult jigsaw.

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