Across the sector there are a large number of people who have just breathed a huge sigh of relief.
They’ve clicked the button, and after months of work their TEF submission has winged its way to OfS.
Now we all just need to wait for the puffs of white smoke from Bristol when the results are published in the summer. The last thing that anyone wants to think about at this point is the next TEF exercise. But at the risk of being incredibly unpopular, I think that now is just the time that universities need to be doing this.
What happens next
One possibility is that we over-react to the prospect of future TEFs. That TEF becomes an established element of the higher education landscape in the way that REF has, so universities start to put in place structures, mechanisms and processes focused on TEF readiness. And this starts to impose significant TEF costs on the sector, in the way that has happened with REF.
For those who think this is unlikely, remember all those universities who in 2018 and 2019 started running full internal mock TEFs, to prepare for the intended launch of a combined institutional and subject TEF. I also remember talking to several colleagues around that time about how they had started to change their internal monitoring and review processes to model them around the TEF methodology then in place.
Another response would be to hope this is all going to go away. OfS have stated that TEF will operate on a quadrennial cycle so that we all get to do this again in 2026-27 – but this might not happen. There were multiple slippages in the TEF cycle between 2017 and 2021, as OfS wrestled first with the ultimately unsolvable puzzle of implementing a subject-level TEF; and then the impact of the pandemic. There will also be an election in 2024. This will result in a new government, and it is increasingly likely that this will be a Labour administration.
So maybe we don’t need to do anything.
But assuming OfS will continue its habit of not meeting its stated deadlines is a bit of a gamble (readers will have different views about how much of a gamble).
And while it’s tempting to view a Labour government as the cavalry coming over the hill to save the sector from the worst elements of the post-2010 higher education reforms, higher education will have to compete with a huge number of other significant priorities for the incoming government. To the extent that higher education is able to gain a place in a new government’s priorities, there are more pressing issues to address than reforming/ending TEF.
We also need to remember that the last time the Labour Party entered government, in 1997, this coincided with an intensification rather than diminution of an approach to the external assessment of university education that was already massively unpopular within the higher education sector (although of course there was a specific context for this, the implementation of the Dearing Report).
A “do nothing” option
Or maybe we do nothing for a different reason. We tell ourselves that as the next TEF will be different from the current TEF we cannot plan until we know the rules for the next cycle. Even though not knowing the rules for the next REF isn’t stopping all universities from already gearing up for the next round of that exercise.
None of these is the right place for universities to end up.
Of course TEF is a flawed process. Like many colleagues in the sector, I spent far too much of the later 2010s pointing this out in multiple responses to consultations about the future of TEF.
But we’ve reconciled ourselves to the fact that REF isn’t going to go away, and we work hard as a sector to reduce the negative impacts of REF. (With some success – the changes to REF between 2014 and 2021 have had a noticeable positive impact). And that’s how we need to respond now in respect of TEF.
Take a look at TEF now
Without wanting to seem too naïve, we should take TEF at face value. The Pearce Review emphasised TEF as an enhancement tool. I’m not convinced it is currently, but perhaps it could be. So the right response at this time in the TEF cycle is for us to focus on how we are going to add value in the coming years to the educational experience we offer our students.
Take our university missions and strategies as the starting point; work with our student communities to identify how we will add value to the education we offer; and be clear on what we will do to achieve this, and focused on delivering this. Not because of TEF, but because that is being true to ourselves and our missions.
And alongside this we should be committed to collecting, reviewing and evaluating data (quantitative and qualitative) about the impact of this work. Not because it will help monitor progress towards TEF criteria, or provide evidence for a future TEF submission, but because that’s how we will know if we’re adding the value we intend to the education we offer our students.
As I say, that might sound naïve. Or it might sound inauthentic – essentially a thin veneer to hide an approach that is really about managing TEF. We need to adopt approaches that avoid either of these traps.
This is far from impossible (see for example the approaches and tools developed by QAA Scotland on Evidencing value – Beyond the Metrics, founded in cultural mapping approaches). So now the challenge is for us to focus on educational value; use the time between now and a future TEF to deliver this and develop our approaches for how we understanding and articulating this; and then have the confidence to believe that when the next TEF comes, this is what we present in our next round of TEF submissions.