Why should teaching-focused, innovative programmes suffer from a teaching excellence framework (TEF) that intends to support them?
The TEF is meant to remedy what Jo Johnson controversially described as the “lamentable” state of student satisfaction in UK higher education, and a wave of interdisciplinary, pedagogically-innovative programmes – including at many Russell Group institutions – have risen to meet this perceived challenge. Despite many of these programmes being featured prominently in TEF narratives as examples of teaching excellence, these programmes will be among the first to suffer from TEF’s misleading results.
Many of these programmes and departments are small, require cost-intensive low staff-student ratios, and do not have a clearly defined pipeline to high-paying careers: ripe targets for restructuring. Moreover, ongoing research at the University of Warwick (in collaboration with the European Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Erasmus+) indicates that due to the emphasis on critical thinking that these programmes champion, they are more likely to receive critical feedback from students.
This should be an advantage, as we seek to find new ways to benefit from student engagement, but instead it will skew future TEF results under the current methodology and risk driving down recruitment. This should be of real concern not just to Russell Group marketing directors who now have to make bronze look distinctively golden-tinged, but for all of us who believe in the values espoused by the TEF and are working to develop new pedagogic approaches in higher education.
The TEF represents a neat articulation of the conflict facing the sector’s shift towards a more consumer-focused model: on the one hand, a stronger focus on teaching excellence drives pedagogic innovation and spurs us to greater efforts to improve student experience; on the other, it speaks the language of the competitive marketplace, asking students to see themselves not just as consumers, but as reviewers of a product with which they have limited experience.
As consumers are asked routinely to quantify their experiences for everything from taxi rides to takeaway dinners, we can see a warping of understanding regarding measurements of "excellence". The TEF pushes this warping into the HE sector: a gold ranking conjures sunny images straight off a marketing brochure; a silver, something less than desirable; and a bronze indicates that you’ll be lucky to escape with a post-graduation job of any kind and without a stress-related disorder.
Within the context of a reputation-driven recruitment system, the TEF will have serious impact on universities’ abilities to recruit students (the first rumbling of this are already being felt in international student recruitment). This is because prospective students – especially undergraduates – are fundamentally imperfect customers reliant on simplistic indicators of excellence. They are making a heavy emotional and financial investment without any prior experience, little knowledge of the sector and substantial external pressure (from parents, schools, and employers).
This is not a desirable basis from which to choose a university programme for many reasons, but there is an especially acute problem: our research shows that students who feel that their programmes did not work to address their evolving needs and expectations are highly likely to provide damning input into exercises such as the National Student Survey; they are also more likely to influence their peers into providing negative feedback.
It is not a surprise that students are becoming more aware of the power they hold as influencers. Increasing incidences of students recording recruitment events reveal that students are willing to go to significant lengths to hold universities to account on misty inferences that trade on reputation. The National Union of Students (NUS) boycott of the National Student Survey provides substantive evidence that students are very aware of the TEF’s potential to negatively impact student experience. While universities should be clear about what they can offer students, what is troubling is the lack of systematic, sector-wide effort put into training students to contextualise and manage their expectations around experience and teaching excellence.
This is particularly troubling given that low points in student satisfaction are predictable, typically falling in the second halves of the first year and final year of study as students confront exams and post-graduation prospects. In interdisciplinary programmes in the US and Europe, as many as one in three students reported feeling unclear about the value of their programme at these key points. This indicates a problem that requires urgent attention.
Fortunately, there appear to be clear remedies arising from our research. Students reported that a visible emphasis on the cultivation of critical thinking and reflective skills helped them to contextualise their interdisciplinary programmes, allowing them to understand the programme’s learning objectives and work towards them. Exercises that articulated how academic learning enabled students to grapple with complex intellectual and practical problems helped students feel capable, empowered and engaged.
This was especially true of programmes with a strong emphasis on social engagement, as found at institutions such as Boston College, University College Freiburg and Warwick (among others). Varied assessment types helped students to understand that assessments can foster intellectual and professional skills development alongside the examining of specific content knowledge. Emphasis on undergraduate research provided students with confidence, marketable skills and tangible outputs to show future employers. Low staff-student ratios facilitated close emotional links between students, staff and institutions. Programmes exhibiting these features tended to produced graduates with high employment rates, high levels of alumni engagement and strong student satisfaction evident in qualitative and quantitative feedback.
What future architects of the next TEF should learn from this is that a simplistic metric-driven ranking system that homogenises practices across an institution or subject will run the real risk of stifling the growth it seeks to stimulate. The TEF is a real opportunity to improve student experience, but only if we think carefully about its practical effects in a neoliberal marketplace.
Gavin Schwartz-Leeper is director of student experience and undergraduate studies, liberal arts, at the University of Warwick.