The TEF… and the University

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results were published last week.  For me, as Chair of the TEF panel, last week was hectic: two hundred and ninety-five institutions submitted for TEF assessment, including large multi-faculty universities and specialist institutions, research-intensive and teaching-intensive universities, further education colleges offering higher education and alternative providers. That meant that the press and policy attention was intense, from local newspapers through to nationals, print, broadcast and web media, generalist and specialist media. In one twenty-four hour period I think I churned out four separate press columns – alongside the day job.

It’s been a privilege to chair the TEF panel, who completed their task with thoroughness and professionalism.  As Chair, I’m perhaps more aware than anyone that the TEF has its critics – they fill my inbox. There are those who argue that it’s wrong to try to evaluate something as complex as university teaching.  I have some sympathy for this – I know just how complex teaching is.  But I also know that students, who are now investing significant sums of money and personal risk in their higher education, are interested in precisely the things the TEF measures: how likely are they to secure a highly-skilled job as a result of their course?  How successful are universities at retaining students on course to progress to successful completion?  How effective do students think assessment and feedback is?   How successful are universities with students from different backgrounds and ethnic groups? These are valid questions, and important things for all of us who work in universities not just to ask, but to be able to answer.

Hallam secured a silver rating.  I played no part in the assessment of the University – I was sent out of the room when the case was considered, checked and moderated.  But I know enough about the TEF assessment process to have worked out in advance that the grade was likely to be silver.  It recognises some outstanding strengths in teaching across the University; the University’s range, breadth and depth, and some striking successes in teaching and learning.  If you have not already done so, read the University’s TEF submission document which we published last week.  It’s a rewarding read and – I can say this because I’ve now read scores of these submissions – provides a very strong account of the University’s achievements.

But it does, obviously, prompt a question about what is needed if we are to do even better. WonkHE published some toe-curling accounts of how other universities had celebrated their gold awards – all done, as Kenny Everett might have said, in the “best possible taste”; some websites looked like photographs of Trump Tower.  Even so, I’m sure that securing a gold award works wonders for morale and institutional good feeling. That’s true despite the criticisms of the TEF metrics as inadequate proxies for what really matters. The challenge for those who argue that the TEF uses the wrong metrics is to offer sensible alternatives. To date, at least as far as I know, critics have not done so. Moreover, when I talk to fellow vice-chancellors about the National Student Survey – itself established for over a decade – they are clear that the NSS provides a useful tool for addressing areas which require improvement.

"The focus on outcomes is a potential game changer which needs to shape the way universities think."

“The focus on outcomes is a potential game changer which needs to shape the way universities think.”

So what does the TEF tell us about our own next steps?  The TEF – alongside the recently-published Longitudinal Education Outcomes data on salaries and employment and the HEFCE pilot studies of Learning Gain at university – is part of an increased focus on outcomes for students.  In the past, universities have thought more about inputs (such as staff and technology), processes (such as curriculum and assessment) and outputs (such as degree classifications).  The focus on outcomes is a potential game changer which needs to shape the way universities think. Not because outcomes alone matter, but because, in a mass higher education system, they are important. We have to sharpen our own focus on outcomes.

At the core of the TEF is a strategic clarity: it directs attention to a critical relationship between institutional policies – the arrangements universities make for students, institutional practices (which are not the same as policies) and student outcomes.  It requires universities to understand the impact of what they do and how they evaluate it.   Institutions which did best in the TEF, wherever they are in the sector, grasped this with coherent and compelling accounts of that relationship. They demonstrated institutional arrangements to secure consistency in student experience – not uniformity, but consistency. They were serious not just about student voice or representation, but engagement at every level.   They asked hard questions not just about what they do, but whether and how well it works.  They conveyed a vibrant learning experience which, amongst other things, engaged and stretched students, extending their sense of what is possible and orienting them to success beyond a degree. The Shaping Futures strand of our University strategy, led by Christina Hughes, will help us to address these issues.

The TEF panel was required to focus on the way higher education meets the needs of disadvantaged students. This was one of the most absorbing parts of the exercise, and one where almost everyone has things to learn – often from institutions facing the most difficult challenges, working with marginalized groups in unprepossessing settings.  In the last twenty years, all universities have demonstrated their success on widening participation in higher education, and there have been striking successes – as well as continuing challenges.  However, it is not enough simply to widen participation.   What is important is to close gaps in attainment, to secure success beyond enrolment.  There is a strong message there for us.

The TEF will evolve. Metrics will change. Criteria will alter. The history of performance assessment systems tells us that they are rarely repeated without revision.  But the focus on impact and outcomes is not going away: the personal and institutional stakes are too high. The TEF reflects a shift in the sector.  The test for us, as for all universities, is how we respond to that shift. Institutions that learn from it are likely to thrive.

One thought on “The TEF… and the University

  1. Congratulations on both the Silver and on the sterling work put in chairing an enormously complex and challenging task.

    At the UGC I was involved in the very first RAE, and know that it is not possible to please everyone. But we found even then that it was worth treating complaints positively to see where the process could be improved.

    The TEF will be refined over time, as you suggest. But it looks to be a great start. My only surprise in all of this is that an assessment of teaching quality did not follow sooner after the introduction of significant fees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *