Scotland and the TEF: universities should be prepared

Are Scotland's universities all that different to England's when it comes to measuring teaching and learning quality? asks Steve Olivier

August 22, 2016
Scotland map

Recently, we heard that Scotland was dropping all future bids for "Blue Flag" beach status, in favour of home-grown awards. Similarly, as I write there are ongoing efforts to persuade the Department for Education that Scotland should have a separate system for implementing the teaching excellence framework (TEF) that is "equivalent but different" to that in England, and based on Scotland’s existing Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF).

In both cases, this is Scotland asserting a view that could be seen to have antecedents in a desire for independence of some sort (even if not necessarily in the form of another "indyref"), and in both cases they have implications for how the quality of what is offered is seen by others

As a surfer, I’m interested in water quality, and as an academic I’m interested in quality assurance and enhancement in higher education. So as to not bore you with my observations on sewage and how we treat it, I’ll confine my commentary to the latter. 

Universities Scotland (US), the body that describes itself as the voice of Scotland’s Universities, is working hard to present a unified front in terms of the approach to TEF. While it acknowledges every institution’s right to decide on approach and entry, it is arguing strongly for the "equivalent but different" approach. 

The thinking goes something like this (and I’m aware that I’m simplifying somewhat): Scotland is different. We have a successful Quality Enhancement Framework, and an established Enhancement Led Institutional Review (ELIR) Quality Assurance Agency audit cycle.

What we would like is recognition that we can base TEF on QEF/ELIR, and that we can include any Scottish "flavours" into a Scottish TEF. Unlike England, we wish to integrate QA and TEF. 

US feels that there is broad support to build an equivalent but different regime, and has even established an expert group to explore a potential Scottish alternative to the TEF. I’m less sure about this level of agreement.

Several of my peers that I have spoken to are sceptical too. However, the thinking has shifted subtly to the point that US is not seeking a Scottish TEF, but rather a TEF that is sensitised to Scottish issues. 

Part of the problem stems from the entirely natural and understandable inclination towards self-interest. It has even been whispered that some of the voices that have been loudest in proclamation of "equivalent but different" are from those institutions that have suffered most in the Times Higher Education (and internal) mock TEFs. But I’m sure that is too cynical a view. 

Another issue for me is the question of why the Department for Education should care. Surely it is too much hassle to argue with what is a small sector compared with England, when what you are pursuing is a relatively simple mechanism for determining teaching quality?

It is all complicated, for the moment at least, by the differential fee element that underpins TEF, which is not at present particularly relevant to Scotland, and the TEF is of course designed to meet the objectives of higher education regulation and funding in England. 

Also, the obsession with "equivalent but different" is problematic in that the Scottish audit system is institution driven, and TEF will rapidly move towards a subject focus. So why spend time and effort adapting ELIR to an English system that will soon change anyway? It may be better for us to focus on review at subject level to stay abreast with future TEF developments. 

Finally, and this is where I get a bit heretical, and where I might have to duck for cover at the next US meeting – are we really better at enhancement than English universities?

Let me be clear – I love working in Scotland, not least because of the explicitly stated focus on quality enhancement and what this means in terms of flexibility and exciting experimentation. However, I’m not entirely convinced by the commonly expressed (in private) view that this in itself leads to Scottish universities being better at enhancement. 

Perhaps the reality is that the English system is great at enhancement too, that there is excellent work going on there in teaching and learning, and that TEF will recognise this. In my university we are continuing with our efforts at enhancement. We live it and believe in it.

But we are also preparing for TEF, being open to the idea that what we do is compatible with what is being proposed. We see TEF as an opportunity, albeit almost certainly an imperfect one, at evaluating what we do for our students in terms of teaching and learning.

Steve Olivier is deputy vice-chancellor at Abertay University.

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