What’s the future for the TEF – and how might we shape it?

A laser-like focus on enhancement would improve the TEF dramatically, argues Paul Ashwin

Paul Ashwin is Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University.

As we head towards an Office for Students (OfS) consultation on it, it is probably worth taking stock of where we are, how we got here and where we might go with the Teaching Excellence (and Outcomes) Framework (TEF).

For those just joining us, it is probably most helpful to start with how we got to where we are. In January 2021, the excellent independent review of the TEF was laid before parliament.

It provided an elegant and coherent plan for the future of the TEF and was met by a Department for Education (DfE) response that, as I argued at the time, felt “like a piece of homework that DfE forgot and had to cobble together on the bus while chatting to their mates”.

In July 2021, OfS published an update that did an impressive job of finding a workable middle course between the Pearce Review and the DFE response and was clearly trying to make the best of a difficult situation. Great credit should go to OfS for this approach.

We are where we are

The approach indicated by OfS is that the TEF will be an institutionally focused exercise that will focus on enhancement. The outcomes will be based on assessing a mixture of provider and student submissions and metrics. More weight will be given to the provider and student submissions than before.

This is good news but before we relax, we need to be very careful to clearly establish the basis on which teaching excellence will be assessed in the submissions. There was some evidence that more prestigious universities were more likely to be upgraded in the first round of the TEF based on their institutional submission, suggesting that this prestige can be effectively mobilised as a substitute for excellence.

It is also obvious that, without the effective use of assessment criteria, after the first round of the new TEF institutions will simply try to copy the language of successful submissions from previous rounds.

Where next

First, and most importantly, for any national teaching excellence system to be effective it needs to be based on a shared definition of teaching excellence. Without such a shared definition implicit definitions of teaching excellence will be used that are not subject to public scrutiny and discussion.

What is most likely to happen is that the metrics that are used to inform the TEF will end up defining teaching excellence because we value what we measure rather than measuring what we value.

Part of the reason there has been resistance to defining teaching excellence in the TEF is an understandable desire not to limit what can be counted as excellent. However, there is a simple way around this and that is to define teaching excellence in terms of the principles that underpin teaching excellence. We have over 50 years of higher education research that is consistent about what these principles are.

One example of such a principle is that teaching excellence is based on how evidence is used in order to systematically enhance the educational experience and understanding of students.

Second, if the TEF is to be based at institutional level then it needs to focus on something that can be meaningfully measured at institutional level and which is under the direct control of institutions. This rules out educational quality because we know this varies within institutions and is located at the level of courses.

It also rules out employment outcomes because this is much more directly affected by graduate’s personal characteristics, geography, and the state of the economy than it is by the higher education that these graduates have engaged in.

Enhancement

Bringing these points together, it suggests a future in which the TEF has a laser-like focus on enhancement. The TEF could focus on how institutions use evidence to systematically support the enhancement of education across the whole institution. Thus rather than focusing on institutional and national metrics themselves, it could focus on how institutions use these metrics to enhance all of their educational provision and support the experiences of all of their students. This would also have the advantage of preventing institutions highlighting their particularly successful areas whilst hoping that no one notices the more problematic ones.

If policy makers found this too much of a step-change, it would be possible to base the TEF partly on institutional outcomes and partly on how the institutions use the data underpinning these outcomes to enhance their provision. However, it is the process of assessing how institutions systematically use evidence to enhance all of their educational provision that would end up being the most important element of the TEF in terms of lasting impact.

By now, some will no doubt be shouting “How on earth do we measure that?”. But the measures we have of teaching excellence are far more like sledgehammers than they are like lasers. A lot of the problem with metrics, as well as university rankings, is the misleading simplicity of the numbers they provide, which conceal the multitude of distortions and compromises that make the production of such a simple outcome possible. In this case, those limitations are made explicit in the kind of measure that is offered.

The other advantage of such an approach is that when institutions inevitably try to game the system, they will be forced to consider how they systematically use evidence to enhance their educational provision across the institution. This is exactly what I would want the TEF to do because it would develop a system that uses the time and money put into the TEF to directly ask institutions to systematically enhance the quality of the education they offer for all students.

You may not agree. We will soon get a moment to shape the future of the TEF through OfS consultation. So however you think the TEF can enhance the quality of higher education, I would encourage you to share your view through this process because a key role we have as educators is to engage in public discussions about the kinds of policy mechanisms that can sustain and support an inclusive and transformative system of higher education.

2 responses to “What’s the future for the TEF – and how might we shape it?

  1. Terrific analysis by Paul. If we want the TEF to service a stratified higher education market, based on metrics not causally connected to student learning, stick to the status quo. If we want the TEF to foster continuous improvements in student learning, follow Paul’s pathway.

Leave a Reply