What use is TEF to applicants?

There’s a danger in the way TEF is presented to applicants. Paul Ashwin spots the warning signs.

Paul Ashwin is Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University.

Thanks mainly to the excellent work of the Pearce Review, the primary aim of the TEF is no longer to inform student choice but to encourage higher education providers to enhance the quality of their provision.

This is an important change.

The TEF does not tell potential applicants anything about the quality of individual degree courses and, given the duration of the award and the age of the data it is based on, only tells them what an institution was like three to seven years before they might study there.

Incentive programme

However, despite this change to the aims of the TEF, the categories used in TEF2023 could inform student choice in a way that has a devastating effect on the HE system.

Against the advice of the Pearce Review, the Government chose to keep the gold, silver, and bronze ratings, and to add a fourth signalling the need for improvement. This was developed in the OfS consultation on the TEF in order to send a “strong incentive” to providers by “using clear language accessible for prospective students”.

In the results published on Thursday no providers were given this rating. However, the results of only around three quarters of HE providers were published with the others appealing. It is easy to see why any institution given “requires improvement” will have appealed. For providers, the TEF is all about managing institutional reputation (as sadly demonstrated by the nonsense of some providers claiming a “triple gold”).

While applicants cannot meaningfully use the TEF results to decide which degree programme to apply to, they can use them to narrow down their list of potential providers. Why on earth would any applicant choose to apply to a higher education institution that requires improvement’? Given the parlous state of the finances of providers, as laid out in the recent House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report, being given such a rating would represent an existential threat to any institution.

TEF and market exit

This is dangerous. Nearly all institutions have some very good and some much lower quality degree programmes. This means that some excellent degree programmes will be lost if institutions rated as requiring improvement are forced to close. This would be deeply unfair to the former and current students who have studied these high quality courses, whose qualifications will be devalued, and to the administrative and academic staff who would lose their jobs as a consequence.

This is clearly not the fault of the TEF assessors who will have agonised over their decisions, but of a rating system based on the whims of ministers rather than through any serious evidence-based process.

Since at least the 2016 White Paper, ministers have appeared almost excited at the prospect of “providers who do not rise to the challenge” choosing “to exit the market completely” as “a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market”. There is something profoundly disturbing about such excitement at the potential demise of institutions that play an important social, economic and cultural role in their regions and beyond. It will last only up until the moment that its dreadful consequences are felt when it will give way to tearful regret and a headshaking mutter of “no one wanted this!” Such are the games some politicians play, but for a regulator who is supposed to look after the health of the system in the interests of students, this is a complete dereliction of its duty.

Of course, it is possible that no provider will be given the rating of “requires improvement”, which raises the question of why to have it in the first place. Given the TEF is based on such a limited and dated set of evidence, in what way is it in the interests of students to hang this threat over providers?

Potential damage

Taken as a whole, the TEF outcomes tell us what we already knew.

High quality education exists across the system and there are areas that need improvement. There may be some benefits in terms of educational enhancement but, given the TEF does not explicitly focus on how institutions support enhancement, these are likely to be limited.

It is truly dangerous madness to do such potential damage to the HE system for such little benefit to students, institutions, and wider society.

Leave a Reply