This week the Office for Students publishes a second set of teaching excellence and student outcomes framework judgements. This year’s TEF assessment applies the TEF methodology to 86 institutions – a variety of multi-faculty universities, alternative providers, specialist institutions and further education colleges. The combined results of the 2017 assessments (published in June last year) and this year’s shine a light on teaching and student outcomes across an increasingly diverse and complex higher education sector.
No doubt there will be a good deal of focus by commentators on comparative performance, but the overwhelming outcome of the 2017 and 2018 TEF exercises is a confident assertion of the power of higher education to do good: to create opportunities for students, to support their transition to rewarding and stimulating careers, to build confidence, to expand the mind and to enrich society. That is true across higher education – from the large, multi-faculty university to the specialist conservatoire, and from the further education college to the alternative provider.
At a time when higher education has too often been on the defensive, the TEF reminds us that in its core activity, higher education in the UK excels. The TEF has done just that: highlighted teaching excellence. I defy anyone who chooses to read the institutional submissions to be anything other than awestruck by the breadth, imagination, challenge and stimulation offered across the sector. I have spent my entire career focused on the importance of teaching and on improving teaching: the TEF has brought teaching excellence to centre stage.
Once again, it has been a privilege for me to chair the TEF, leading an experienced and diverse panel reaching judgements based on complex data sets reflecting benchmarked performance.
Although the TEF’s approach to benchmarking has its critics, the fundamental intent – to benchmark institutional performance as a way of understanding the institutional effects, and to look at the interaction between institutional practices and the performance of different demographic groups – is a major step forward. This year, a modest change in the way institutional benchmarks were presented – noting the population in scope for each metric – enabled assessors and panelists to sharpen their judgements for the better. In my view, this shift was the most significant change since the last TEF exercise.
The TEF remains anchored in institutional metrics, and has been a major driver of a greater focus on examining the measured performance of different demographic and socio-economic groups in institutions. This year’s changes – for example, the half-weighting of the NSS metrics in the initial hypothesis developed by assessors – have been absorbed into the overall TEF methodology with ease.
But while the TEF is anchored in metrics, the submission by each institution is of critical importance. After assessing more than 300 institutions, the panel has developed an expertise in how to use the metrics and the submission against each other. Too often, we find that submissions remain too narrative, too flimsy, too internally focused, or insufficiently concerned with the TEF assessment criteria. The best offer a confident dialogue with the metrics, giving a strong and evidence-rich sense of the institution’s performance against the full breadth of criteria. In this respect, TEF “case law” continues to evolve, while the panel’s focus on the criteria for assessment ensures a broad year on year comparability.
The core measures of student success remain the same. If anything, the panel this year found itself increasingly concerned with the issue of student retention, in particular the complex relationship between widening participation strategies and retention. The breadth of the panel’s expertise was a bulwark against simplistic judgements, but retention matters: if students do not complete their courses, positive outcomes are extremely difficult. Conversely, the new supplementary metrics – LEO and grade inflation – are rightly supplementary, playing a supporting role alongside the core metrics and submission. There is more work to do on the way supplementary metrics can be used, although their contribution to a sense of institutional performance was important.
Once again, there will be some surprises in the TEF outcomes but, also once again, the outcomes pass a “common sense” test. That they do so is in part the result of the methodology – simple but coherent, tensioning metrics and submissions against each other – but even more the result of the work of the assessors and panellists.
The TEF assessors and panellists have been rigorous and fair, searching and stringent. The TEF panel draws together very senior institutional leaders and students. They are united by their expertise and their strong moral commitment to the power of higher education teaching to do good. Their judgement and their professionalism has been exceptional.
Chris Husbands is chair of TEF assessment panel and vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.