How to ace your TEF submission: learning from 'gold' institutions

Stephanie Marshall looks at the common features exhibited by universities that successfully achieved a TEF rating upgrade

November 21, 2017

The teaching excellence framework (TEF) is centre stage on the UK higher education policy agenda, although debates continue about what excellence means in the context of an increasingly diverse higher education sector. 

Today, we have published research ("Evidencing Teaching Excellence: Analysis of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF2) Provider Submissions") for which we analysed the submissions made by 229 higher education providers with a full TEF Year Two award ("gold", "silver", "bronze"). These submissions formed part of the decision-making process in which 20 HE providers were upgraded to a gold award (including one for which the initial hypothesis was bronze), and 18 to a silver award.

Our analysis holds a mirror to the submissions, seeking to find the common threads between successful applications and what this means for teaching excellence in the UK more broadly. 

Overall, our report showcases the true vibrancy and diversity of higher education provision in the UK and the dedication shown in the pursuit of teaching excellence. It provides tangible evidence that the UK HE sector truly cares about teaching and achieving student success. 

So how did those providers who were upgraded achieve it? And how can your institution do well in the TEF?

While our research reveals a wide variety of approaches to describe teaching excellence, a successful TEF submission should demonstrate the following broad principles: 

  • Articulate a clear institutional identity and educational philosophy
  • Have a clear vision for teaching excellence
  • Take a whole institutional approach to developing, implementing and evaluating strategies
  • Pay attention to the TEF criteria and cross reference them
  • Show a strong evidence of student engagement. 

A clear institutional identity

Some 79 per cent of upgraded providers referenced institutional culture as a key theme, particularly related to recognition and reward for staff.

Many of these mentioned specific processes such as institutional commitment to accreditation and teaching qualifications, development of teaching observation processes and creation of academic promotion pathways. Three-quarters of upgraded institutions' statements of findings referred specifically to recognition of staff, and 93 per cent of all the statements regarding staff recognition highlighted processes for rewarding staff, suggesting this was a key aspect of the panels’ decisions to upgrade providers. 

In general, the review of submissions showed a lack of systematic evaluation of impact. There was also little evidence of the impact of investment (including investment in technology) on student outcomes. Improving their monitoring and review processes to take account of institution-wide evaluation of impact would certainly make a big difference to the assessing of future TEF submissions, particularly when one considers that the research excellence framework (REF) evolved a specific impact strand. 

Your institution should also ensure a clear vision for teaching excellence and a distinct educational philosophy. To achieve this requires approaches to be embedded (that is, a whole institutional approach to developing, implementing and evaluating strategies and processes which support teaching excellence, and should additionally correspond with your institution’s distinct and articulated mission and context). 

Student engagement

The most successful providers put in place appropriate measures that encourage and engage students to fulfil their potential, and course design features that promote student engagement and offer opportunities for linking theory to practice. 

More than half of providers who were upgraded by assessors were commended for student engagement, particularly those who were upgraded to a gold award. Most statements mentioning this aspect described ways in which students are engaged in their learning. There were references to personalised provision, tutoring, contact hours, research-led teachin, and engagement in professional practice as a mechanism for achieving high levels of engagement and commitment from the student body. 

Regarding effective approaches to demonstrating teaching excellence in relation to the TEF specifically, it is for the provider to decide how to address the TEF assessment criteria, although it is probably helpful to link narrative and description to the basis on which panel decisions are made.   

Going the extra mile… 

The report also identifies that assessors are looking for additional evidence beyond that arising from the core and split metrics. Therefore, you should consider demonstrating how internal data, review processes and evaluation have supported the development of the provision. Communicating and celebrating a distinct identity, clearly and authentically, can help to show coherence in terms of strategic and operational aspects of teaching and learning. 

Narratives that demonstrate and celebrate the contribution made by different student groups can help to show evidence of excellence across your institution’s provision. Evidence of the impact of approaches to teaching and learning usually require demonstration that a change has taken place. The review of submissions suggested that providers may find it easier to overcome the challenge of demonstrating the impact of particular policies, practices and initiatives, in terms of comparative evaluation between groups. 

Demonstrating how your approach has supported excellent outcomes should be given further consideration. In some cases, providers have made much of new approaches to teaching and learning without demonstrating their effectiveness for student outcomes. While talking about new initiatives, posts or investment strategies can help to show how your institution is moving forward, remember to highlight the impact (either achieved or anticipated) of new and existing developments. 

You may also want to give further consideration to articulating the relationship between academic provision and support services in ensuring that the social, cultural and psychological learning environment meets the needs of your students. This is likely to include approaches to recognising and addressing inequality.

Many of the narratives in submissions recognised that there is a particular gap in attainment between white and black and minority ethnic (BAME) students. Support from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) was mentioned in several cases for the implementation of attainment-raising interventions (one gold HEI noted our 2015 project to address black and minority ethnic attainment). Other providers also indicated that HEA assistance had supported developments in staff training on equality issues around unconscious bias and diverse assessment.

While it’s great to see the achievements of the vibrant UK HE sector celebrated in the TEF 2 submissions, our report also outlines our concerns about the future direction of the TEF.

The introduction of a teaching intensity metric, addition of a grade inflation metric and the reduction of weighting of the National Student Survey could see it move further away from the pursuit of teaching excellence – and instead become a tool for the latest concerns of policymakers. As a sector, we need to consider how we respond to this challenge. 

Stephanie Marshall is chief executive of the Higher Education Academy.

What are your thoughts on this? The HEA has created a global platform to provide an opportunity to learn and share from each other, to better understand the challenges and opportunities so that excellent teaching at all levels continues to evolve and thrive everywhere. Please, join the debate and have your say. We welcome your comments and ideas.

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Reader's comments (1)

Afraid TEF as it was conceived is moribund. At best it will be a tick box to get access to the loan system. It may very well be scrapped in the not-too-distant if (as looks likely) the Tories totally disintegrate.

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