Postgraduates: to TEF, or not to TEF, that is the question

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The proposal to extend the Teaching Excellence Framework to taught postgraduate (PGT) courses from TEF year 4 feels like an answer seeking a problem. Students applying to PGT courses do so for different reasons and with enhanced levels of understanding from those applying for undergraduate courses, and there is little evidence that a TEF would influence their decision making much at all.

Incentives to join?

The drivers for the undergraduate TEF seem to be around encouraging institutions to focus on high quality teaching and using fee increases and reputational benefit as the way of incentivising this. But there are already questions about whether all universities will join the current TEF, but when taken to the taught postgraduate level the incentives for institutions to join are even more difficult to identify.

The fee uplift doesn’t apply in the same way as for undergraduates since they’re already uncapped. Students are also more informed by the time they apply and have different drivers for their choice at PGT level – whether studying in their same institution, somewhere near to where they live or studying with a particular academic – none of which make the reputational benefit of a undergraduate TEF translate in the same way.

What would it add?

There are always improvements that can be made to teaching, but it does not feel like there are the same level of questions about the quality of PGT provision that there has been the quality and quantity of undergraduate teaching.

This might be an opportunity to consider the level of stretch at Masters level and the step-up from the final year of a degree, however, even if the case for a PGT TEF had been made the practical questions of how it might be delivered are quite considerable.

To start with, the data on which TEF assessment would be made is much less readily available for PGT students, particularly in some of the smaller or more specialist institutions that GuildHE represents. The issue of cohort sizes, with most Masters courses being significantly smaller than undergraduate courses, mean that reporting the data is a serious challenge, even if there was a PGT National Student Survey, which there currently isn’t.

Getting a PGT TEF right

Rather than thinking that a metrics-driven TEF is the ideal starting point and trying to translate it to the postgraduate level, we should be taking a step back. What we would want a PGT TEF to achieve? What would be the best ways of delivering this? How this might link with institutions existing quality assurance processes? There are many reasons why we should be looking more closely at quality in PGT courses, but a knee-jerk extension of the TEF may not be the right approach.

The take-up of the Masters loans scheme has been impressive. This has resulted in a greater public financial contribution and therefore increasing public interest in PGT. This combined with the growing number of online postgraduate courses, enabling a wider choice beyond a prospective student’s immediate locale, there is a need for better information.

We should start by looking at some basic principles that should underpin any PGT TEF, rather than simply trying to replicate the existing TEF designed for undergraduate course. These could include:

  • What information would prospective PGT students want about the quality of the course and how might we gather this?
  • What information would enable institutions to enhance the academic learning experience at PGT level and how would this build on existing schemes like the HEA’s PTES?
  • What additional information do prospective postgraduate students want about their future employability, the courses links with employers and professional accreditation?

The PGT academic experience has sometimes been seen as the forgotten part of the higher education sector, bridging the mass participation of the undergraduate level and more specialist research apprenticeship of doctoral students. Increased focus on the PGT academic experience should be welcomed, but more thought needs to be given to doing this in the right way.

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