Notwithstanding changes of government and funding reviews, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) is here to stay for the foreseeable future. It is in the Higher Education and Research Act and forms a key element of the Office for Students’ regulatory toolkit. For the TEF to make a valuable contribution to student choice and the quality of teaching and learning, we need to create a long-term view of its development and get away from an incremental approach that undermines its coherence as an assessment framework.
One of key concessions secured in the passage of the HERA was an independent review of the TEF. The Act sets out a range of criteria that must be considered in this review including the process and information used to determine ratings, whether these are fit for purpose, the impact of the TEF on providers and an assessment on whether it is in the public interest. It also contains a deadline of 1st January 2019 for the appointment of the independent reviewer and it seems likely the review will take place during 2018-19. Whenever it happens and whoever leads it, the independent review will be a crucial milestone and allow us all to step back, consider where the TEF has gotten to, the impact it’s having on our sector and how it should develop into the future.
In advance of the review, Universities UK is undertaking work to explore how the TEF could develop over the next 10 years. This work is motivated by our review of year two of the TEF. This work gave a valuable insight into the emerging impact of the TEF but also prompted some larger questions for the sector to consider. The report highlighted a disconnect between the impact that the TEF was having on institutional behaviour and the extent to which it was likely to better inform students or enhance the teaching and learning experience on offer around the sector.
Most institutions felt the introduction of the TEF had increased institutional focus on teaching and learning with 73% of them agreeing to this statement, clearly a good thing. There was, however, a significant level of scepticism about the wider impact of the TEF. Only 18% of institutions thought the TEF would make a positive contribution to students’ decision-making, 29% that it would enhance teaching and learning practice and only 2% that it accurately assesses teaching and learning excellence.
The challenge for the sector now is to examine what lies at the heart of this disconnect and, crucially, how this should inform the future development of the TEF. Our conversations to date have highlighted two important issues:
- Defining teaching excellence: the definition of teaching excellence created by the current framework and metrics does not accurately reflect that of students, academics or institutions but, as you’d probably expect for a framework created as a manifesto commitment, and priority for the last universities minister, it currently represents a government-driven definition of teaching excellence. This is an issue because the government definition of teaching excellence tends to focus on a narrower transactional relationship between students, institutions and economic outcomes.
- Measuring teaching excellence: the current metrics-led approach risks focusing universities’ attention on data improvement rather than that of teaching and learning practice. The current TEF is underpinned by judging the relative performance of institutions based on a set of benchmarked metrics. Performance against these give an initial indication of whether a provider is Gold, Silver and Bronze and, depending on performance, can limit their ability to change award category through panel assessment. The schools system has shown how the high stakes associated with “upfront and center” metrics can stifle innovation and diversity and divert the focus from actual students.
When it comes to defining teaching excellence the feedback has been clear; the definition needs broadening, placing students and their experience at its centre and defining outcomes and impact as something much larger than highly-skilled employment rates or income.
Feedback on how any future TEF should measure and assess teaching excellence has been more mixed. Developing metrics that can capture a wider definition of teaching excellence and good student outcomes is challenging. There is greater interest in how institutions can present robust and comparable outcomes data to support effective panel judgements. This would help to shift the assessment methodology from a metrics-led to a metrics-informed model that engages more directly with teaching and learning at institutions. However, this approach is not without its own challenges and risks producing an increasingly complex and costly assessment framework.
The long-term development of the TEF will need to bring together the priorities of universities and their students, government and the wider public to help deliver the shared goal of good quality higher education. The intended move to subject-level assessment needs to be approached carefully as the subject-level pilots have illustrated the limits of a benchmarked, metrics-led framework when moving to greater granularity. Furthermore, the TEF will play an important role in the wider strategy of the OfS, most notably in relation to skills. Lastly, the TEF was originally conceived as a way of demonstrating value to students: that should remain at the heart of its ongoing development.
To help achieve this, the independent review should consider in depth the TEF’s aims, design principles, approaches to assessment, its role in the wider information and regulatory landscape across the UK and arrangements for its ongoing development. It is essential that the TEF avoids becoming a reductive and directive instrument that doesn’t engage with the complexity of education. Recognising, rewarding and supporting diverse approaches to teaching excellence in higher education, responding to government and public priorities policy whilst producing robust, comparable judgements that are useful for students is a complex but legitimate exercise.
UUK would welcome any thoughts you might have about how to achieve this, but we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to articulate these in a fifteen page submission and in a benchmarked or absolute way.