The time has come to reconsider subject level TEF

UUK has published a report to the independent reviewer of the TEF calling for the introduction of subject-level TEF to be reconsidered.

It argues the focus should be on ensuring institutional TEF makes a positive contribution to teaching, learning and student decision-making before significantly increasing the complexity of the exercise. Our concerns are:

  • Subject-level assessment will be large, complex and costly and won’t produce reliable judgements.
  • It won’t support good quality teaching and learning and instead will encourage universities to chase rankings.
  • It won’t help student decision-making, only adding to the volume of information already out there.

The cost and value of subject TEF

The first challenge is the sheer size of the exercise. There are currently 37,000 higher education courses compared to approximately 150 higher education institutions with TEF awards. Even when grouped into 35 subject areas the volume of assessment in subject level TEF will increase dramatically, and the OfS plans to almost double the length of time needed to process to judgements. We estimate that subject-level could end up costing upward of £30 million for universities to participate in.

The second is whether subject assessment will enhance teaching and learning or just force universities to chase numbers. The methodology prioritises differentiating institutions, whilst emphasising employment and salary outcomes. However, subject assessment means data will be less reliable and won’t be available for many subjects such as interdisciplinary courses. In addition, the categorisation of subjects won’t match the reality of how teaching is delivered in academic departments.

The third is whether this will help students. Students want information about whether a course and institution is right for them, including the style of teaching, how they will be assessed and what they can expect to achieve. However, the subjects being assessed are not what students will recognise when they get to their university. Most students haven’t heard of the TEF, or use it alongside a range of existing information sources and subject-level TEF is likely to add to, not cut through, a confusing noise.

Our priorities for the future of TEF

  • First – examine how the TEF can help enhance teaching and learning. This includes how evidence presented by universities can be compared and focusing on teaching and learning. There’s a risk the TEF will simply encourage a narrow focus on employment targets to the detriment of the wider benefits of study.
  • Second – think about the role the TEF plays in student decision-making. Unistats, university websites, and league tables all present the same information used by the TEF. For the TEF to make a positive contribution it should complement not replicate these tools by giving students a steer on the teaching and learning experience on offer at an institution.
  • Third – make sure students and their universities are involved in decision-making. It is essential that the aims of the TEF remain focused on good quality teaching and learning. Some complex issues need to be addressed but the TEF can only do so much to achieve various government policy objectives and decision-making.

The TEF is already having an impact on university practice. However, subject-level risks making TEF impossibly complex and confusing for universities and students alike. Furthermore, the higher education sector is facing the uncertainty of Brexit whilst waiting for the outcomes of Augar and the spending review. Now is the time to ensure that the TEF makes a positive contribution to teaching and learning, rather than walking the higher education sector into a costly mistake.

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