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TEF results – Do the prizes still glitter?

As TEF results are released, Mark Leach looks at the important staging post in the big debate about quality in UK higher education, and what the exercise might hold for the future.
This article is more than 6 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

This morning the HE world wakes up to the results of the first serious TEF exercise. Gold, Silver and Bronze awards are shimmering in the summer sun across press releases and university websites.

A vast quantity of data has been published overnight, giving us a great deal of insight into the metrics behind the judgements. The panel statements give further clues as to which institutions the TEF panel decided to move up. We’ll be analysing these in great depth over the coming days, weeks and months.

What the first results show is no great shock; no ‘turning the sector hierarchy on its head’ as some had predicted. Against the expectations of what the metrics showed, only three of the Russell Group universities to enter the exercise were awarded Bronze: Liverpool, LSE and Southampton. However, these proved to be the exception, not the rule.

Those newer universities doing well in the exercise matched the expectations of the data we already had about them: institutions like Coventry, Nottingham Trent and Lincoln have done well-publicised work to improve their student experience over the last few years and have been recognised in places like the Guardian league tables, and now TEF. This is not news for anyone working in higher education today – the old hierarchies have become increasingly redundant in recent years, although that hasn’t been noticed by most of the media – see: today’s reporting of TEF results in the newspapers. 

There were fears that small and specialist institutions would be penalised, but many received Silver and Gold awards. 

It’s often forgotten that TEF awards last for three years, so those awarded Gold this week are unlikely to enter next year or the year after – the risk of being moved down is too great. It will also take a confident Silver provider to justify the time and resources to enter, leaving next year’s exercise for those that aspire to a better prize and believe it is in their reach.

But this is where some of the real problems exist. How do these universities improve their metrics (and their actual student experience) in time for future exercises? HEFCE’s Chief Executive Madeleine Atkins essentially said yesterday at the results launch that it’s ‘not our problem’.

This is a situation that could seriously start to bite in a few years when TEF awards get linked to tuition fees rising with inflation. Those stuck in Bronze will lose real money on the value of their fees – a diminishing pot of money to invest in improving their student experience and theoretically move up in TEF. I hope the HEFCE ‘lessons learned’ exercise and the major public review of the exercise due over the next couple of years collectively finds a way to ensure that TEF doesn’t simply cement forever the status quo, especially given the well-established deficiencies with the exercise as it stands today.

If TEF doesn’t end up driving real change, then Jo Johnson might rightly question what he’s got us all into.

It’s also not just those with Bronze that may need real change. A Gold TEF award could hide a multitude of deep structural and cultural problems at an institution, particularly where the metrics suggested a lower award and the panel has decided to move them up for more subjective reasons. A colleague working on trying to improve the student experience in one of these moved-up Silver to Gold institutions told me yesterday that it’s a disaster for their attempt to win support for institutional change. Trying to convince colleagues to improve, or for senior management to invest more where it matters will be that much harder for them over the next three years.

We’ve written about the fundamental problems with TEF on Wonkhe (as well as the opportunities it brings) since it was first announced. But one of the worst habits is for sector leaders, the media and others to describe the exercise as a real measure of teaching quality. This is an error made yet again today by HEFCE in their announcement of the results. It’s frustrating to see the exercise mis-sold: TEF does a lot of things, but it’s also highly limited. You sadly only need to look so far as sector press releases to understand why the media continue to misunderstand and misreport TEF and the debate about quality at universities.

As for how students interpret all of this: the jury is out. UCAS are adding TEF award badges to their student portal and only time will tell whether this or the underlying data bears any weight on the all-important decision about where and what to study. Confident predictions about that are made on both sides, and for now, we can only watch this space.

Despite the background noise, today feels like an important staging post in the long-running debate about quality in UK higher education. We’re nowhere close to reaching the destination, and perhaps we never will – and that’s fine. But the sector must continue to strive to improve for its students, staff and the public who depend on the success of the endeavour in many important ways.

Of course, it’s also possible that TEF could ultimately prove to be just the latest in a long line of teaching excellence initiatives that lose momentum or are outright killed by the sector when shown to be too expensive, ineffectual, or both.

However, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s going to be with us for quite a while, and so the onus is now on the sector – with government and its agencies – to improve and refine the process and mitigate some of its problems. There’s little deeply-felt love for TEF in higher education – support to date is largely pragmatic, and for the winners, there are clear opportunities. But ignoring it won’t make it go away, and the real prize is in what it all brings for the development of the next serious stage in the quality debate: who knows, TEF might even drive improvement of teaching quality in UK universities one day.

For the most comprehensive coverage of TEF and the results follow Wonkhe’s #TEF tag.

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