Back when Wonkhe was first publishing briefings for SUs on the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), as the student lead for the student submission at my university, what first struck me about the process was our ability to address some of the “Features of Excellence” far more comprehensively than others.
For our SU, and I’m sure for many others, the “Features of Excellence” highlighted gaps in our knowledge of important aspects of the university experience and what this means for students.
It has shown us the areas we need to invest more time and resources into understanding- particularly in relation to “student outcomes”.
We are now looking to revise our internal student feedback mechanisms, such as our annual survey, in order to incorporate new questions that will allow us to better understand how our university is upholding the features of an excellent university experience – and why the outcomes are the way they are.
It further emphasises the need for SUs to regularly adapt to a changing HE landscape as, students, employers and government’s expectations of universities are ever changing. In this way, the TEF student submission has refocused our SU’s understanding of what makes an excellent university experience for our students, allowing us to maximise and redistribute our time and resources.
Why SUs should focus on outcomes
Arguably until this process came along, the view was likely that a significant majority of SUs time and resources is lent to the “student experience” as opposed to “student outcomes”.
But as the government and wider HE sector is seen to be placing increasing importance on graduate outcomes, should SUs reconsider their approach? And don’t most students care deeply about whether they get to the second year, complete their course and go on to get as decent job or further study?
At Portsmouth the university and the SU have this concern in common, resulting in a major collaborative strategic project focused on student outcomes that has seen substantial financial and resource investment from both sides.
Through this project, our SU will be directly helping courses where we have identified low NSS scores in order to provide more student opportunities with the aim of increasing positive student outcomes.
Some academics have felt more apprehensive to this approach than others. With the introduction of the TEF student submission, highlighting the importance of the SU and co-creation, we hope that this will legitimise SUs working collaboratively with universities to achieve improved student outcomes, where traditionally this may not have been seen as a job for the SU.
Undoubtedly, the introduction of the student submission has given power back to the SU. As poor pockets of practice have the ability to adversely affect providers TEF ratings, we hope that the student submission will legitimise SUs future propositions to universities that focus on enhancing the university experience.
Already, I am seeing an increased willingness from our university to improve in areas we have identified as a concern, and I would hope this is the same across the sector.
Co-creation NOT duplication
Of course, the relationship between SUs and universities across the sector will vary, and this may or may not impact their experiences of working with university leadership and the subsequent approach they take to working on the TEF submissions.
In our case, we have adopted a collaborative approach as we felt it beneficial to provide each other with data that helps us further contextualise aspects of the student experience, therefore allowing us to create more authentic and comprehensive submissions.
However, regardless of the chosen approach, the TEF student submission has ultimately provided SUs the opportunity to work more closely with universities than ever before.
In some cases, it has strengthened existing relationships, in others it has provided SUs a gateway into working with university staff on student experience and outcome projects that may not have been a possibility before. Alternatively, it could be a combination of the two.
Either way, the introduction of the TEF student submission has facilitated a space for co-creation between universities and SUs, and we hope that this will lead to more frequent and improved co-creation projects and practices in the future at both a senior and local faculty or school-level.
Through this collaboration, SUs are able to show providers the importance of co-creation in working towards the same goal, and how this can maximise positive student impact, dismissing any notions of ‘work duplication’ across the institution that may have been held before.
Approaches and perspectives will vary across the sector, but one view that is shared and made abundantly clear by the Teaching Excellence Framework, is the need to demonstrate evidence of impact.
Through working with the university on the TEF submissions, we have identified the need to improve each other’s methods of “closing the feedback loop”, ensuring we have robust means of data collection to better demonstrate evidence of impact for years to come.
Ultimately, this will prevent assumptions and generalisations, allowing both SUs and providers to continuously develop and better meet student needs. The increasing importance of closing the feedback loop has resulted in an investment from our university into improving the SUs course representative structure, something we hope will improve the quantity and quality of student feedback.
Priorities for guidance and support
The experience of the new TEF cycle has also highlighted some barriers to creating a robust student submission.
Asides from the inevitable consequences resulting from the time constraints that the new TEF placed on universities and SU, there are a number of other barriers to ensuring there are consistently robust student submissions across the sector.
Organisational structures of SUs vary significantly across the sector and this will inevitably impact the credibility of their submission.
For example, Portsmouth SU has over 30 staff members and a dedicated “Data and Insights” department, whereas those SUs with smaller staff teams are more likely to struggle when it comes to ensuring there are robust means of data collection, interpretation and analysis.
In fact, upon analysis of student feedback over the last four years, our SU experienced issues with our internal student feedback reports having been presented in a confusing format or lacking detail that is difficult for effective analysis in line with TEF submission needs.
At times, this called for our staff team to go back through the raw data and re-analyse in order to provide a useful insight, which would be an issue for SUs with smaller staff teams.
However, as previously mentioned, we are now amending our internal student feedback mechanisms to ensure this isn’t a problem for the next TEF cycle, and we would encourage other SUs who have have experienced similar difficulties to do the same.
Amplifying and authenticating the student voice
Lastly, it is worth noting that student submitters such as newly appointed Sabbatical Education Officers, who are only just settling into their roles, may not have had sufficient time to learn the ins and outs of higher education to prepare them to effectively lead the student submission.
This may not be so much of an issue for second year sabbatical officers. Some SU staff teams may also be thin on the ground or inexperienced with the type of data analysis that TEF calls for.
This is where approaches like that of the University of Manchester would be beneficial. There the university took an approach to support the new student team with their TEF submission by funding a student intern post within the SU. This gave the student team the extra resources and support needed during the very busy start of term. In addition the university wanted to ensure the student voice shaped their provider submission and employed student interns and student partners, as well as having SU representation (a staff member and an elected Officer) on their university TEF group.
Having strong student teams working on TEF in both organisations has ultimately strengthened collaborative working post TEF submission.
Of course, this is dependent on university and SU resources, but through this experience we have identified a cost-free support channel for SUs. Fortunately, our SU is part of the Southern Union’s Network who have been meeting regularly to share knowledge and enhance our understanding of TEF. For the purposes of TEF, it may be beneficial to facilitate SU networks that group together SUs with similar types of universities and student cohorts.
For us the TEF student submission has redefined what makes an excellent university experience, encouraging improved methods of robust data collection, interpretation and analysis to demonstrate evidence of impact.
It has empowered many SUs, clarified their purpose, and refocused attention and resources to better serve student needs. And perhaps most importantly, it has connected universities and SUs through strengthening existing partnerships and establishing new ones, which we hope will lead to more frequent and improved future collaboration in the future, to better meet student needs.
The introduction of the TEF student submission has provided SUs and universities the foundations to operate a “high challenge, high support” assertive relationship for years to come; a relationship focused on empowerment, high expectations, high achievement, co-operation, tolerance of mistakes, adopting new approaches and risk-taking.