Stop celebrating the TEF results – your hypocrisy is galling!

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride

June 23, 2017
celebrate, cheer, tef results

Yesterday saw the public release of the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Considering how long academics, and students, have decried the metrics that underpin the assessment it was hugely frustrating to see universities widely celebrating their new shiny gold and silver medals on social media.

What made this even worse was to witness colleagues from multiple institutions – especially those who have challenged TEF methodology in the past – widely sharing their university ratings with pride. Their hypocrisy was galling.

Soon after results were released, the vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, Sir Christopher Snowden, made a short statement drawing attention to the issues with the assessment – all of which were well-known.

“There is no logic in our result at all,” Sir Christopher told THE. “How can you have so many positive comments and exceed many of your benchmarks by a colossal margin and still get a bronze?” 

Snowden on TEF: 'meaningless’ results ‘devoid of credibility’ 

Initial analysis supported Snowden’s remarks, and demonstrated how the TEF panel statements do little to explain the results (such issues made more glaring by the publication of the list of core metric scores). However comments from Snowden and others were soon painted by the press and social media as some kind of special pleading for those institutions within the Russell Group, which had been given the shock they “deserved” for supposedly resting on the laurels of their “elite” status and as a result had been awarded bronze. 

Yet such responses neglect the wider impact of this imposition of a “three-tier” classification to our higher education system. Despite attempts by universities minister Jo Johnson to claim that the results show that there is a “lot of excellence throughout”, and the TEF panel and its chair’s claim that “seams of gold” can be found in many silver and bronze providers, this has little impact on the public who will view gold, silver and bronze as “good”, “average” and “bad”.

This was evident yesterday from BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys’ statements on the Today show interview with Johnson and Sorana Vieru (vice-president for higher education of the National Union of Students), when he exclaimed more than once that those universities achieving bronze were evidently “third-rate” and “third class” universities. 

The effect this has had, and will have, on many institutions beyond the Russell Group is made explicit when academics such as Ben Pitcher from the sociology department at the University of Westminster have felt compelled to release heartbreaking statements in defence of the TEF result, which he said suggests “quite plainly, that we’re crap at our jobs”: 

“This is why I’m writing to you, our undergraduate students. You know as well as I do that the TEF result is just not true. You know that in sociology you’ve got a really dedicated teaching team. You know how much work we put in to developing super interesting modules (spending many more hours on this than the university asks us to). You know how much one-to-one support we provide to develop your knowledge and skills. You know how intellectually transformative our critical, socially engaged teaching can be.”

By applauding TEF results we implicitly accept this framework and its methodologies, when it is abundantly clear that it needs to be dramatically overhauled if it is to do as it claims and measure “teaching excellence”. This is not about ‘institutional self interest’, this is about asking for a sound foundation upon which to assess, and subsequently assure, high levels of teaching quality in our universities.

We need a framework of assessment that captures the diversity of teaching within our institutions, and it is inexplicable to me, and many others, how quality of teaching and learning can be said to have been assessed without anyone actually stepping foot inside classrooms and lecture theatres. 

In the meantime, please stop celebrating the TEF results. Doing so only serves to widen division and rivalry, at the expense of working together to help guarantee a fantastic education for all of our students.

Emilie Murphy is lecturer in early modern history at the University of York.

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Reader's comments (8)

Amazing how they haven't complained about league tables which give them double points for taking in straight a students and giving them a first. This is a wake up call to the sector. I used to teach at a post 92 university (which has just got gold) and from where many of our graduates went to the Russell group uni in the same city. They always came back and told us how much better our teaching was (even though at the time the university was near the bottom of the league tables). The reality is for too long the Russell group have relied on their reputation (based on research and being hard to get into) and have neglected the thing that matters ro most students - teaching and student support. Hopefully the tef will mean more stagus for those of us who teach with some research rather than the researchers who teach (if they have to).
This echoes my own experience teaching in a post-92 institution with a Russell group across town. Feedback was always the same. But the TEF is certainly not more meaningless than the "league tables", for reasons such as the one stated above. Don't see Southampton expressing lack of confidence, though.
The TEF doesn't assess teaching.
Does anyone know why Soton and LSE and Liverpool all did so badly?
Professor Snowden was the president of Universities UK between 2013 and 2015, a key period when Jo Johnson and the government was consulting on TEF. Snowden was also Vice Chancellor of the University of Surrey from 2005 to 2015. As VC at Surrey, Snowden gave annual presentations to staff wherein he expressed his support for TEF on the grounds that it would empower universities to raise tuition fees. I am no fan of TEF. But as Chair of English at Surrey from 2011 to 2016 I attended those staff presentations where Snowden often spoke about the importance of TEF. Now that he is VC at the University of Southampton (which received TEF bronze) he has had a sudden change of heart. Professor Justin D Edwards
The criticism should be directed at the increase of the fee (from 2019?) which is untenable for several reasons: 1 the fee should be reduced back in line with Dearing by which all stakeholders contribute, but undergrads at a symbolic rate (not more than £2k which becomes expressed as a percentage of the total tuition fee); 2 there should be a standard unit of resource. All the rest is mere flannel and a critique around the edge.
What greatly concerns me about the blanket approach of "University X got a Gold/Silver" is that it suggests the whole university, every department and programme meets the standard. When it fact it's more likely whatever award was given was in spite of a lot of areas that need work. What's at risk is a growing sense of complacency due to fees going up and applications increasing based on an assumption by applicants that the course they're interested in must be at least part gold standard, and an assumption by staff that their courses won't be pressed too hard as long as the institution maintains a gold overall.
But note that there are institutions, Oxbridge included, who got gold and have not said anything about it. Some honorable exceptions.

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