How to improve higher education learning and teaching – a user’s guide

A new independent report by higher education expert Dilly Fung for the Office for Students fillets the latest TEF submissions of 31 providers that improved their rating since the last exercise to see what can be learned about how to improve learning and teaching.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

To cope with this premise you have to accept that the two TEF exercises are sufficiently comparable – acknowledged in the report – and that both to a sufficient degree measure the quality of learning and teaching. You also have to accept that the quality of learning and teaching is something that can meaningfully manifest and be managed at the institutional level. In this case the analysis is focused not on the raw data but on the qualitative institutional submission which as the report explains:

typically include accounts of providers’ overarching goals, of the strategic steps taken to bring about improvements in students’ experiences and student outcomes, and of the ways in which providers have set about evidencing these improvements.

The best submissions, Fung concludes, are able to draw links between the overall strategy and intent for change, the actions taken to achieve the changes, and the impact on student experience and outcomes. It sounds straightforward, but the degree of effort involved across the whole institution to achieve this degree of alignment will be painfully familiar to anyone working on education change in universities.

How it’s done

On strategy and planning, the improver submissions tend to demonstrate a clear sense of educational purpose and intended benefits for students and wider constituencies such as employers or cities/regions. There is also a repeated theme of strategic streamlining in which all parts of an institution are encouraged/required to align with the core institutional strategy.

But words are easy and practice is hard – it is in the operationalising of aspiration that makes the difference and where the strategic intent can dissipate into “initiative-itis” in which a series of well-publicised and well-resourced projects generate goodwill and interest but don’t touch the sides of the core learning and teaching culture and practice in the disciplines.

Some of the methods discussed in the report are:

Frameworks – curriculum frameworks, student support frameworks, assessment frameworks, employability frameworks you name it, it’s got a framework. These can be a useful step on the road to implementation as they offer a common language, and a benchmark against which current practice can be evaluated and developed. They do, however, require implementation themselves

Changing the portfolio and delivery model to best meet the strategic aspiration – this might include introducing new subjects, optional modules or pathways, or new qualifications such as degree apprenticeships, or delivering them in a different way, working with different partners, and so on. This sort of work is fascinating, under-explored and I think gets a bit of a bad rep as surfacing in the public imagination as institutions closing courses. Sometimes there are course closures involved but there’s also a lot of innovation going on.

Development and recognition of teaching staff – something that arguably TEF has made a bit more of a priority. If you’re going to say something is strategically important, you need to develop and recognise the people who are doing it well. If the current system doesn’t make that easy, then the system needs to change. One aspect of this that I’ve seen emerging in recent years is much more robust support for programme leaders and much more meaningful recognition for these educators as “leaders”.

Development of estate, resources and infrastructure – well beyond the rhetoric of shiny buildings and digital transformation, what these submissions show is deep consideration of how the built and digital environment create the conditions for student success. So that might be about how the student centre is configured, how classrooms are equipped, or provision for experiential learning. As the financial challenges continue to bite we’ll sadly see a lot of less of this sort of thing and it’s probably quite useful if when institutions are proudly touring MPs round their new facilities they emphasise that this sort of thing is less and less doable in the current climate.

Engaging with students as partners – lots of evidence of really constructive relationships between providers and their SUs here, as well as systematised schemes for involving students in learning and teaching enhancement – though the report doesn’t get into the student submissions. A bit of an evaluation vacuum is identified here though, and this sort of feel good activity is all great until the project resources dry up and the SU gets its funding cut. Knowing what you want to get from working in partnership with students (as well as what students are supposed to get from it) means there’s less chance of disappointment.

Working strategically with external partners – another fascinating and exciting area that can be a bit under-explored as you don’t often hear the voices of the strategic partners in HE policymaking. Being able to work externally, find common purpose and sustain an ongoing relationship is increasingly a core organisational and individual competence for HE.

Managing enhancement

“Lots of bits of the organisation doing fantastic work” doesn’t really wash unless there’s a way of checking that the work really is fantastic, spreading it where it is, and stopping it where it is not. That comes down to the distinctly unsexy but enormously impactful internal governance of quality enhancement.

Historically that idea has shown up in committee structures, standing items, and review processes. All this detritus of bureaucracy remains necessary (to a point) but the real action is in the definition of what is intended to be achieved, the choice of what data to monitor to track progress, and at what level, and the commitment to empowering and resourcing individuals and teams to assess and own the outcomes of their work.

The deployment of Theory of Change principles, the triangulation of varying data sources including student engagement data and systematised student feedback, as well as actual research into learning and teaching, are all hallmarks of these improving institutions. But there are also cultural factors that affect whether the wider community is bought into the strategic enhancement agenda around recognising the contribution of staff (and students) and celebrating successes.

Overall, though, Fung emphasises that it’s the linking up job between planning, implementation and evaluation that is the hallmark of quality and the area for more work. Having a coherent narrative that explains in the classic STAR technique the situation, the task, the action, and the result helps shepherd the busy TEF panellist to a positive conclusion. But articulating those links has value beyond winning at TEF – because for an institution that is going through change being specific about the why, the what, and the how can give confidence and clarity to everyone who is involved in that change.

In that sense, while a TEF narrative can legitimately stand accused of ironing out the nuance and complexity behind the hard work of education change, sometimes it’s the story that makes the change possible.

Approaches to strategic improvement described in TEF 2023 submissions can be viewed and downloaded here.

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