TEF: rebooted

The Office for Students trails a new TEF remake. David Kernohan has a bowl of popcorn and his feet on the seat in front

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

It’s the summer blockbuster reboot we’ve all been waiting for. TEF returns – for a new generation to enjoy.

Although, it may not actually be called the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). That, along with the names of the four (not three) levels of excellence, will be up for debate in a consultation due in November 2021. So you could see today’s announcement as being more like a trailer for one of many coming attractions.

What remains

The old TEF existed to enhance and recognise excellence above the regulatory baseline, and this mission continues. Participation remains mandatory for OfS registered providers, the scope remains at provider level and looking at undergraduate teaching only.

The new scheme will remain public – data, submissions, and outcomes will be published as now, with OfS quoting Pearce in expecting this to “help to incentivise improvement, by affecting providers’ reputations”. Providers will receive one of the four new ratings alongside a narrative statement from the panel, as now – and information will find its way to Discover Uni once again.

Data will still be published before the results are – but may now include a split by subject of study (no word on what granularity) as well as by student characteristics. However you feel about TEF, this is a useful new data publication for those wanting to understand what goes on in universities and avoids a lot of messing about with access and participation dashboards and/or unistats data to get there.

The starting point is that the shape of the assessed student body will be similar to the previous exercises, though there is consideration being given to aligning it to the wider (all students at a provider) definition that would be used in regulatory assessments.

What changes

The new scheme will be rebalanced to rely more on provider and “independent student” evidence (the expected mention of SUs is not there, but they would seem like the natural conduits) and less on national metrics. The latter will still play a part (the choice of metrics is one to look forward to the autumn for) but the days of initial hypothesis and flagging are passed. The incredible machine is being scrapped.

Panelists (drawn from academic and student expertise in learning and teaching) and the assessors that support them will have four pieces of evidence to work with – the provider and student submissions, the national comparative indicators, and information of the overall size and shape of provision. If you think that latter sounds a bit like benchmarking you’d be right – benchmarking will remain a key part of the indicators, though (as latterly in TEF) there will be a means of examining absolute values too.

There’s a lot in the statement about alignment with regulatory conditions – TEF and B3 (outcomes) indicators are likely to be similar. It will also be worth keeping an eye on the way limiting factors (“you can’t get this award if you have x”) will be applied in both cases.

And those awards – the metallics are gone (so 2017!)  and as proposed by DfE a new level will be inserted at the bottom and will indicate “insufficient evidence of excellence”. As there is already a baseline threshold (below with a provider couldn’t even be registered, much less enter the TEF) it’s difficult to see any point to this beyond keeping the ministers happy. Perhaps – OfS speculates – it could be used to flag registered providers for further investigation? It doesn’t feel much like enhancement to me.

Also on the “doesn’t feel like enhancement to me” list are the provisions in this morning consultation that limit eligibility for TEF or remove TEF awards from providers where there is a concern linked to either a breach or a risk of a breach regarding registration conditions. As TEF (B6) is in and of itself a registration condition this feels rather like a catch-22, and given the historic basis of TEF it makes little sense to add new datapoints after the fact.

Coming soon

The consultation is slated to arrive in autumn 2021 – we were previously told November so that feels like a good guess. Submissions to the new scheme will open in summer 2022, and outcomes published – in a change from the June data of the old TEF – early in 2023. There are, of course, other quality and standards related consultations due at a similar time, and OfS is anxious not to overload the sector.

After that, the next but one TEF awards will be announced in 2027. Yes – that’s a four year gap between iterations, though the data will be published every year and there may be an interim assessment point for newly eligible providers.

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