Don’t diss the teaching excellence framework

Some vice-chancellors will decry the results of the teaching excellence framework, but should recognise areas of poor teaching it exposes, says Edward Peck

June 21, 2017
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Finally, the wait is over.

Universities know now whether they have been rated as gold, silver or bronze in the teaching excellence framework (TEF).

While some vice-chancellors will be beaming with pride, delighted to be able to say they deliver outstanding teaching and learning, others may use the announcement of disappointing results to chip away once more at the credibility of the metrics.

Back in February, I said that I was bemused by hostility to the TEF, beyond an understandable explanation linked to institutional self-interest. I remain so.

I believe that the TEF enables us to demonstrate the extent of the highest quality of education that exists in our universities and which encompasses higher education institutions with different histories and distinctive missions.

I assume that few of us in UK universities are opposed in principle to the idea that the quality of what we do should be open to scrutiny through a combination of metrics and peer review. After all, our research activities have been open to just such assessment through the research excellence framework and its predecessors for decades; debate there focuses on the approach, not the concept.

Let us turn then to the TEF metrics. Of course they are proxies for teaching quality, just as REF metrics are proxies for research quality. However, they relate to aspects of teaching and learning that presumably we all value. Do we do all that we can to retain the students we have recruited on the understanding that we will help them to transform their life prospects? Do we give our students a rounded experience that they appreciate for the significant investment that they are making? Do we enable our graduates to get into the jobs or further training that will launch them in their chosen careers?

These are issues on which I would want my university to be judged in relation to teaching and learning because they matter to both my colleagues and our students.

While I do have reservations about the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education statistics that inform the TEF, overall they are good enough and can be refined over time. I have not heard any of the critics of the current metrics suggest a better set; if they have constructive suggestions on alternatives, then these can be fed into the forthcoming review of the TEF.  

I would have more sympathy with those who bemoan the introduction of the TEF if their institutions have never celebrated and promoted their position in the various league tables that purport to judge relative quality. Most of these use data related to at least two of the TEF metrics – NSS scores and employability – alongside others that have little or nothing to do with the quality of institutional interventions. Entry tariff is the most obvious example, but others, such as those relating to how much a university spends, are also dubious indicators of quality.

Crucially, and unlike the TEF, none of the league table measures are contextualised to reflect the characteristics of the students that universities recruit. However, I do not hear an outcry about their iniquity when they are published each year.     

The TEF has traction precisely because it is sponsored by the government, based on a set of metrics that measure output and impact linked to an institutional narrative, and subject to peer review.

Undoubtedly, the TEF results challenge the established hierarchy of UK universities. In so doing, they make transparent to students and society what many of us have known for years about the unevenness of teaching quality across the sector.

Even as many university senior teams decry the process, they will be charging colleagues with responsibility for taking action to ensure that they do better in future.

Ultimately, this is the point and surely is of benefit to all of those who will engage with UK higher education in the years to come. 

Edward Peck is the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. Institutions were informed about their TEF results on 19 June, with full results due to made public on 22 June.

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Print headline: Don’t attack the TEF, embrace it

Reader's comments (1)

And at this point I, and the many academics I've seen posting on sites like this and on social media, begin to despair. The TEF does not measure teaching quality. It measures a range of metrics, but it can't measure teaching quality, because it doesn't analyse actual teaching. This is a glaringly simple and obvious point; and in itself it invalidates the exercise. This is why the TEF doesn't command support amongst university staff and students. We value good teaching; but the TEF has nothing to do with good teaching. All it does is to give us one more system to game.

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