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Can TEF make waves in Scotland?

Only five Scottish universities chose to enter TEF this year, but there are signs that the exercise will have far greater effects than expected in Caledonia, suggests Alastair Robertson.
This article is more than 6 years old

Alastair Robertson is Dean of Teaching and Learning at Abertay University.

In contrast to the market-driven English ethos, higher education enhancement in Scotland has been driven by a continued collaborative approach over the last fourteen years through the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF).

But that is not the only way in which the Scottish and English sectors contrast. There are only nineteen higher education institutions in Scotland, the system is publicly funded, and student numbers for Scottish and EU students are capped. There is a strong culture of working together on areas of mutually agreed priority through, for example, the Enhancement Themes which has had a significant positive impact across the sector and internationally.

The Themes conference is now probably the largest event of its kind in the UK and, at the most recent conference a couple of weeks ago, it was clear from the speakers and informal discussions with participants that Scotland wishes to grasp the data nettle in a way that is appropriate for it. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the new theme announced at the event is to be “Evidence-informed Enhancement”. This presents a positive opportunity for Scotland to regain some initiative and proactivity in a way that is appropriate for its context. The transformation of quality in English higher education through the introduction of NSS, KIS and now the TEF all have significant knock-on effects across the UK.

The Teaching Excellence Framework in Scotland

Universities Scotland’s Learning and Teaching Committee established a working group early on in TEF’s development to advise its policy and provide an expert consultation group for BIS (now DfE). The group comprises several senior managers with strategic responsibility for learning and teaching in their institution (e.g. Vice Principals/PVCs, Directors of Learning and Teaching), planners and representatives from various agencies such as NUS, SFC, QAA and Universities Scotland. The philosophy and methodology of the TEF have been debated extensively and significant concerns were raised around measures which were felt to possibly disadvantage the Scottish sector e.g. retention, participation (SIMD versus POLAR) and employability. DfE officials have made a conscious effort to engage with the sector and made appropriate amendments following consultation. It has been clear that the Westminster Government would like all four nations to participate in the TEF and Universities Scotland’s working group, chaired by Professor Charlie Jeffery (University of Edinburgh), has played an important role in the process.

The Scottish Government has been fully involved in discussions over the TEF but have remained largely neutral over Scottish universities’ participation. Scottish universities are able to take part in the TEF on a voluntary basis and all Scottish universities have been allowed to increase the maximum fees for RUK students for 2017-18 from £9,000 to £9,250, regardless of TEF participation.

Drivers for Participation (or not)

The main driver affecting participation in TEF2 for Scottish universities has undoubtedly been perceived reputational gain balanced with risk. In the end, only five Scottish universities took part in TEF2 and all performed very strongly: Abertay (silver), Dundee (gold), Heriot Watt (silver), Robert Gordon (gold) and St. Andrews (gold).

Given the self-selecting nature of this group, it is probably not overly surprising that they all did well as they must have been reasonably confident in their provider metrics to decide to take part. What remains to be seen, however, is the influence that these results will have on some of the other fourteen higher education institutions’ decisions on whether or not to take part in TEF 3 and beyond. It is difficult to imagine that at least some other Scottish Universities will not apply for a TEF rating in the future but the bar has apparently been set high by the pioneer group i.e. above the UK average.

Looking at the five institutions’ statements of findings, the feedback in all cases is very positive. For gold-rated institutions, adjectives such as “exemplary”, “optimum” and “outstanding” are prominent whereas “excellent” and “successful” are used for the two silver-rated. There are common emphases on student outcomes, widening participation, course design, assessment and feedback and it is pleasing to see the prominence given in several of the statements to an institutional “culture which facilitates, recognises and rewards excellent teaching” (Abertay, Dundee, Heriot-Watt). It is also evident that providers’ submissions played an important part in the panel’s final assessment, which will be of reassurance across the UK sector.

Taking part – the impact so far

Those Scottish institutions which took part in the pilot TEF have undoubtedly benefitted not just in terms of achieving favourable ratings. The process of drafting a contextual statement has caused participating universities to ask challenging questions internally around evidence of impact and data sources. TEF has the potential to be a powerful tool for enhancement purposes, influencing operational and strategic planning.

There have also been a couple of unintended spin-off benefits of the TEF in Scottish higher education already: first of all, the significant capacity building around metrics-based enhancement across the sector and secondly a strengthening of relations between senior learning and teaching managers and planners.

The new Scottish Enhancement Theme on “Evidence-based Enhancement” is an important opportunity for the Scottish sector to reflect upon uses of data, both quantitative and qualitative, more generally. The influence of TEF in the Theme, explicitly and/ or implicitly remains to be seen but it is clearly already affecting some institutions’ behaviour.

Finally, the Scottish sector remains largely sceptical of subject level TEF, its added benefits and the proposed methodologies. It is particularly problematic for four year degrees which in general provide students with greater flexibility and choice. Students tend to choose which university and which programme to study; the proposed methodologies do not seem to acknowledge this. Further interesting times lie ahead, of that there is no doubt.

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