TEF: vice-chancellors’ lack of focus on teaching ‘sold students and staff short’

The TEF will do ‘more than any single step in history’ to change the landscape of teaching in British universities, argues Anthony Seldon

June 22, 2017
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The teaching excellence framework (TEF) has landed safely in universities across the land. Before long, it will become as regular a feature on the university landscape as the annual round of summer exams.

The universities that have spoken out most strongly against it – the older, more established ones – are likely to contain those who will belittle the TEF. But do they realise that they have brought it on themselves? If their vice-chancellors had shown the kind of spirited leadership that Derek Bok did as president of Harvard, TEF need not have happened. After Bok arrived in the 1970s, he was frank in his criticism of the quality of teaching he found and made it clear that he would not tolerate the substandard.

Had all British v-cs led from the front in revolutionising the quality of teaching, we might never have got to where we are. For too long, vice-chancellors have revelled in the level of their pay but have given insufficient leadership to the “education” side of running a higher education institution (with, of course, some honourable exceptions).

University staff and students have been sold short because of this oversight.

Data published by the Higher Education Policy Institute earlier this month has shown yet another fall in the value for money that students believe they are receiving from their university. In 2012, 53 per cent of students thought that their university education represented “good or very good” value for money, and 18 per cent “poor or very poor”. By 2014, only 44 per cent felt it represented good value, and more than a quarter – 26 per cent – poor value.

In 2016, the figures were 37 per cent against 32 per cent, while in 2017 almost as many students thought they were receiving “poor or very poor” value for money (34 per cent) as thought they were receiving “good or very good” value (35 per cent). Concerns over the quality and extent of teaching ranked highly among the sources of dissatisfaction.

TEF will do more than any single step in history to change the entire landscape of teaching in British universities. This does not mean that it is perfect. Now that it has arrived, the time has come for reform. I write this not as a vice-chancellor whose university has done badly but as one whose institution received the top rating (gold).

Here are several reforms distilled from my booklet, Teaching and Learning at British Universities (Social Market Foundation, 2016).

Learning should be assessed – and not just teaching, because it is the former that really matters. Students should be involved in a detailed way, and they should be taught how to give feedback in areas such as: engagement; subject knowledge; clarity of exposition/organisation; the forging of positive relationships; skill at engaging students in discussion; high expectations that stretch all students; the setting and assessing of purposeful assignments; differential communication to reach all kinds of students; the encouragement of independent learning; and technical mastery (including having a voice that is audible and variable).

As a school inspector for many years, I marvelled at the accuracy of student feedback. To dismiss it at university as partisan or ill-informed is to belittle and patronise our students.

Good teaching has to be learned – it cannot be assumed. Staff need to be systematically trained to excel at very different types of exercises, including giving tutorials, seminars, lectures, practical sessions and research supervision. The editor of Times Higher Education, John Gill, wrote earlier this month about the last of these, saying that the uneven quality of PhD supervision had become a very serious issue. Training of staff needs to take account of the fact that teaching in STEM subjects, social sciences, humanities, professional subjects, performance and visual subjects requires widely different skill sets.

Vice-chancellors need to lead teaching from the front, and not give the impression that they care only about research and new sources of funds. They should lead a culture where professional responsibility for offering outstanding teaching and learning is embedded in the institution’s culture. Every university should devise and run its own initial teacher training programme with regular refresher courses. They should work much more closely with schools.

Since I became a vice-chancellor almost three years ago, I’ve often been told that teaching at university is not at all the same as teaching sixth-formers. Really? The main difference I can discern is that it is not treated anything like as professionally and seriously as it is by schoolteachers.

The aim should be for all universities to become self-improving institutions which, if they are shown to be leading their teaching and learning seriously, should be absented from national systems such as the TEF. The risk is that if the TEF does not improve its methodology now, it will become the formulaic blight on university teaching that Ofsted at worst has been to schools. Serious professional leadership of higher education institutions is the only show in town.

Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

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Reader's comments (1)

Student feedback at university is shown by many (scientific) studies to be very poor at tracking teaching quality.

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