The rankings problem for TEF

When The Times and Sunday Times university rankings came out last week, those tasked with constructing the Teaching Excellence Framework may have cast a wary eye over the results.

When The Times and Sunday Times university rankings came out last week, those tasked with constructing the Teaching Excellence Framework may have cast a wary eye over the results.

After all, if the TEF is really going to be ready next year, it will have to contain many of the same statistics. What else is going to be available in such a short time? There have been suggestions that it will include graduate salaries (whatever they have to do with teaching) but most of the other measures will surely be familiar.

The TEF bands could turn out to look a lot like last week’s league table with the REF scores removed – student satisfaction, completion rates, staffing levels, degree classifications and graduate destinations may all be there. If so, I wonder if Jo Johnson will like what he sees when the first drafts hit his desk. Oxford and Cambridge should be reassuringly secure at the top, but some other big names may struggle.

From the earliest days of the National Student Survey, some Russell Group universities have languished well down the table for student satisfaction. This year’s separation of scores into “teaching quality” (the first three sections of the survey) and “student experience” (all the rest) has made this even more obvious. The London School of Economics is last for teaching, feedback and academic support, while King’s College and University College London are in the bottom four.

All three are in the top dozen for entry standards and staffing levels, however, so Mr Johnson might be spared an embarrassing decision when all the measures are combined. But others might not be so lucky: Manchester only just makes the top 30 of the Times/Sunday Times table when research is included as a weighted indicator; Liverpool and Queen Mary University of London are outside this group.

Of course, the TEF is supposed to shake up some of those who are perceived not to be pulling their weight on teaching. But would the Government really want to penalise universities that are important to their regions and have big medical schools, as well as strong research records in key fields?

Would this TEF actually be a good guide to teaching quality anyway? Effective or not, there was a test of that – the QAA’s subject reviews – but they are long gone and there is no suggestion that they are about to be reinvented in some less burdensome form. Several of the other league table measures are valuable in guiding prospective students, but not specifically about teaching.

The tables also undermine the case for TEF bands to determine fee levels for whole institutions. Will Portsmouth and Liverpool John Moores not be allowed to charge more for sports studies, where they are in the top ten, because they are not in the top 50 overall? Will Kent be able to raise its fees for physics even though it is in the bottom three for the subject because it is among the top 20 institutions?

Naturally, there are plenty of subtle (or less subtle) changes that could alter the order for whole universities or individual subjects. Using benchmarks for completion and even the NSS would have strong support in the university community, although it would increase the likelihood of Mr Johnson having to deny big-name institutions the opportunity to raise fees, if he was serious about limiting that privilege to the top 30 per cent. Including a measure of value added, as many would like, would shift this from a likelihood to a racing certainty.

The first discussions on a new mechanism to promote teaching, back in the days of the Coalition, were about a TREF, adding teaching to the Research Excellence Framework. It would have been unwieldy and inevitably less focused, but outcome would have been more predictable and less volatile.

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