This article is more than 1 year old

What next for TEF?

TEF submissions are in, but does the Teaching Excellence Framework have a future? Richard Harrison weighs up the options.
This article is more than 1 year old

Richard Harrison is Deputy Secretary at the University of York, but is writing in a personal capacity

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.

Another scenario

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.

8 responses to “What next for TEF?

  1. I’ve been having a lot of these conversations too Richard. Like you, my main conclusion is that more than ever ‘quality’ is everyone’s business. We need leaders throughout the organisation who understand and can use internally generated and externally provided evidence to improve their key teaching ‘products’ (programmes and pedagogy). It’s something that every other industry does – and arguably we start on the front foot as we have a range of established research and evaluation skills in-house we can draw on to enhance our offer. But of course that means we have to break the late great Prof. Sir David Watson’s second law of the academic jungle: ‘You should never go to a school or department for anything that is in its title (which university consults its architecture department on the estate, or – heaven forbid – its business school on the budget?)’.

    If we get that right, then we are ready to play whatever game we are asked to – whether it be TEF, a targeted OfS investigation, Ofsted or something that is currently only a twinkle in a future minster’s eye (as TEF once was). The bottom line is we need to be masters of our own destiny, telling strong evidence based stories and showcasing what we do well. Then, and only then, will universities become more than institutions for learning – and true learning institutions.

    Thanks for the plug of the QAA Scotland piece – it has now been quite radically updated and QAA member institutions can access new resources, case studies and ideas about how to Evidence Value: Beyond the Metrics here:

    Anyone who isn’t a member please feel free to get in touch with me via my website which you can do by clicking on my name on this post.

    1. Thanks Liz, much appreciated. I think the evidencing value work is incredibly helpful – indeed I did a case study about how we used the tools when I was a Newcastle ( ). As a sector we’ve rightly focused a lot on the importance of values; it’s as important that we reclaim, define for ourselves and really focus on value.

  2. The usual thoughtful and insightful commentary from Richard! I agree absolutely with this. I would summarise it slightly differently: we should all be doing the right thing. Whatever exciting process or metric comes over the hill, we should all – and especially those in QA&E – simply be doing the right thing. An intelligent process / metric, designed by our “intelligent regulator”, will reward us for it; and a less intelligent one may not, although consultation may smooth the sharpest edges. But fundamentally, I don’t think mature, responsible organisations should be racing around trying to chase what they imagine someone out there wants. We know what we want to achieve, and why, and we should focus on that. And if we don’t think that adding value is what we want to achieve… that’s a very different kind of conversation!

    1. Thanks Jon. Entirely agree that there are different lenses that can be taken on this, and different approaches. For me it’s all about having the right lens and approach for the particular institutional context in question (hence my pet hates of the phrases ‘good’ and ‘best’ practice, and preference for ‘effective’ practice as a concept and term – which I think emphasises the importance of context). The key thing is about us focusing on value for our students, and thereby our wider societal impact (the students we graduate as universities are the biggest impact we will have on the world), and having the confidence to define value in ways that go far beyond how a regulator (even an ‘intelligent’ one), or indeed a government, might define this.

  3. I couldn’t agree with this more, and the need for some lessons learned considerations has been the third thing on my mind for the last few weeks (after the TEF itself, and sleeping).

    I agree as above that we need to be careful that we do things that are good that happen to help us for future TEF, rather than things for TEF, but I think there is a lot of scope for this.

    I don’t want to make the TEF sound like a good thing – it’s really not – but the process has highlighted a range of areas where we could join things up better, or make more use of internal monitoring data more frequently, or sing about, share and learn from some of the hidden examples of good practice that have emerged.

    I agree that a lot of this does come back to classic QA practice (exactly the kind of things which the left hand of the OfS wants us to stop doing, just as the right hand recommends we use our annual overviews of accreditation submissions as evidence of good practice in the TEF).

    Data may be playing an ever more important role, but it seems clear that the need to monitor, review, enhance and carefully consider your potential external audience when writing internal documents hasn’t really gone away at all.

    1. Entirely agree Andy. I think we (i.e. the HE sector) need to take some of the responsibility for sometimes in the past making the argument for some of the things you mention on the basis of ‘QAA says we have to’ (when that often wasn’t the case) rather than from first (educational and academic principles). But a chunk of the responsibility lies in the confrontational way that the national debate and developments have been taken forward since 2015.

  4. I think the massive implication for preparation for TEF pt 4 is that OfS are terrible at listening to sector opinion and advice. Recently, “consultation” has been nothing more that a tick box exercise to massage the egos at the heart of OfS. For example, the NSS question set consultation and previous TEF consultations have been widely ignored by OfS bods who “know the sector” better than those actually delivering HE. So any preparation for the next QA exercise needs to be done with a pinch of salt I think.

  5. Thanks George. I agree about the lack of impact on final OfS plans of sector responses to consultations, which is both disheartening and (in my view) leads to poorer outcomes in terms of what is being implemented and how. And yes the next iteration of TEF will be different in important ways, but in the same way that I think there are very significant continuities, as well as differences, between Old and New TEF, this is very likely to be the case for the round of TEF following this one.

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