Proposing a sustainable Teaching Excellence Framework

As the Conservative Party conference gets under way and Green Paper expectations rise, much attention is focused on the principles and parameters of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for higher education.

This is an important opportunity, but not without risk. As the HE sector champion of teaching quality, the Higher Education Academy (HEA) is already supporting institutional, subject and individual trajectories towards excellence; indeed, this has been its core task for more than a decade. In addition to support, the HEA is in a position to mitigate potential risks associated with launching a TEF – for the government, funding bodies and institutions alike – if its advice is heeded in current political debates.

On the invitation of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the HEA has offered initial comment on how the TEF could be configured. There are some crucial elements underpinning the HEA’s advice to BIS:

  1. A primary objective of excellent teaching is to engender high quality learning and educational success for students. Any ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ must be holistic (to include teaching and learning) and to be clearly geared towards facilitating, supporting and understanding successful educational interventions and outcomes in diverse settings.
  2. Excellent teaching is not a destination but a dynamic and developmental process at any level: institutional, subject, profession or individual practitioner.
  3.  Students, employers, professions and wider society all require learning and educational outcomes that are diverse and fit-for-the present, as well as the future. Any approach to teaching excellence must promote and support creativity and innovation as well as continuous quality improvement.

The HEA has discussed and distilled a set of key principles that should underpin a TEF. These are based on research and discussion with a wide range of stakeholders including our PVC TEF Working Group.

First, there is no commonly agreed single definition of teaching excellence, domestically or internationally. However, there is consensus that teaching excellence is dependent on context: institutional mission, cohort of learners and subject. Evidence of excellence can be drawn from institutions or other spaces where an environment to support high quality learning has been created, and from the discipline or subject-specific context where teaching excellence is manifest through interactions with students.

Second, a TEF must essentially be developmental and part of on-going institutional activities to improve teaching quality and educational outcomes for students. Only in this way can it be embedded in practice and experienced as ‘low-burden.’ Equally important is that external peer review is built into the process.

Third, current metrics are not direct indicators of excellence in learning and teaching as they were not designed or collected for this purpose. New metrics are needed, and should emerge through consensus, and be collected over time as the TEF develops and becomes more sophisticated.

Fourth, the TEF must be linked to the Quality Assessment system, but must not be part of it since the two processes are designed to achieve fundamentally different objectives. Quality assurance is necessary, but far from sufficient to achieving excellence in teaching, learning and students’ educational experiences and outcomes; this is equally true and well-understood in relation to the achievement of research excellence.

In current debates – which include both the TEF and the English, Welsh and Northern Irish funding bodies’ review of quality assessment – there are two important risks that should be mitigated, if not avoided altogether.

  • The linking of TEF outcomes to tuition fees is of considerable concern to a number of institutions and student representatives . This linkage raises the stakes of TEF and has put pressure on the speed at which a wholly new framework has to be designed, tested, launched and evaluated. Some PVCs have argued that the fee link is unnecessary because a TEF kitemark will have significant sway among prospective students – gaining a good TEF score would influence the ability to realise the full £9,000 fees, not just a low single figure percentage increase.
  • The UK higher education sector has an enviable international reputation for quality at all levels: in the educational success and employability of its graduates, in student satisfaction, and in the quality of disciplinary and pedagogical research. These achievements are underpinned by a focus on quality and excellence that has been sustained over many decades through robust internal and external systems of assurance and enhancement. Any TEF must build on the achievements to date and support the sector in raising its aspirations to even greater heights, particularly in the light of increasing and intense international competition. This is a strategic risk for the sector, all countries of the UK, and for TEF.

The HEA has proposed a developmental model for the TEF which is built around submission of ‘a case for excellence’. Each submission would be peer reviewed with panels drawn from academia, students and employers. Success would lead to an award at different levels (bronze, silver and gold,) and would allow display of an associated kite-mark. To encourage and promote improvements in teaching quality, detailed feedback should be given to enable re-submission or to assist in building the evidence for submission of a case for the next level of award.

The proposed model would also support system-wide improvement and development through accumulating evidence of diverse journeys towards excellence and diverse examples of high impact interventions that have led to excellent outcomes for students. Given extensive consultation with its members, the HEA is confident that such a model would be broadly supported by both students and institutions, and thus capable of implementation. It would also ensure that the TEF is a genuine opportunity for the UK to sustain and advance its international reputation for providing top quality higher education.

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