Who suffers if leading universities opt out of the TEF?

If top institutions decide against taking part, the reputation of the TEF itself could be undermined, says Chris Havergal

September 1, 2016
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When academics have complained about plans for the teaching excellence framework (TEF), Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has always been keen to stress that participation in the exercise will be voluntary.

It has been largely assumed that all of England’s universities will take part in the TEF, not least because it offers the only way for them to increase their tuition fees beyond £9,000.

But, in recent months, it has gradually become clear that this is not a foregone conclusion; and a lead story in Times Higher Education this week reveals that some Russell Group vice-chancellors are considering whether to opt out of the TEF altogether.

This would be a significant step: not only would it mean keeping your annual tuition fees at £9,000 while your competitors pushed them up to £10,000 and beyond, but it would also mean forgoing the reputational benefits that might accrue from demonstrating the quality of your teaching.

The fact that some universities might not take part illustrates the depth of the concerns that exist about the impact of the TEF.

Vice-chancellors are concerned that the proposed metrics – student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment – are poor proxies for teaching standards that will fail to capture the diversity of the sector.

They fear that taking part in the TEF will become such an administratively burdensome activity that the cost of participation will become so expensive that it will outweigh the value of an inflationary increase in tuition fees.

And, in the case of England’s most prestigious universities, there is concern that being seen to underperform could be very damaging to institutional reputation.

This is particularly the case because the government has indicated that only about one in four institutions are expected to achieve the top rating of “outstanding”; and analysis by THE has indicated that many of these places could be taken by small campus universities and post-92s.

However, this is not just a debate about individual institutions’ reputations; it also raises questions about the reputation of the TEF itself.

If leading universities choose not to take part in the TEF, it seems likely that they would suffer some reputational damage, risking accusations that they are running scared from an assessment that may present them in less glittering terms than usual.

But many Russell Group institutions might feel that they could ride this out, having based their standing on their research prowess for so long. Their concerns about the metrics, and about the cost, are genuine. Some could already fill their student places several times over, so might not be too concerned by a slight dip in applications.

And, if some of England’s very best universities – or more than a handful of the Russell Group – do opt out, it seems more likely that the reputational damage would be to the TEF itself. How much credibility would an exercise claiming to showcase the best teaching in English higher education have if it did not include the University of Oxford, for example?

Teaching-focused institutions, who have the most to gain from the TEF, could once again find themselves losing out in an environment where research is king.

It seems likely that this is a scenario that Mr Johnson will want to avoid, and the risk of a boycott is likely to be a key bargaining chip as the fine details of how the TEF will operate are worked out: for example, how many institutions can be expected to achieve a rating of outstanding, and how the metrics will be balanced with institutions’ own submitted evidence.

Ultimately, this may be a game of brinksmanship. Although a THE survey found that only three out of the Russell Group’s 20 English members would confirm at this stage that they would participate in the second stage of the TEF, it seems likely that most will come into line eventually.

This is not an issue on which it will be possible for all of the Russell Group’s members to reach an agreed position on, weakening the mission group’s hand, and the financial incentives are likely to prove too great in the end.

The fact that Mr Johnson offered to drop the link between fees and the TEF, but that universities did not take this up when it became clear that there was no other means by which fees could be increased, is striking.

One scenario that is possible is that concerned universities may stay out of the TEF assessments at first, until they are more convinced about what the impact will be, or until more sophisticated – or acceptable – metrics are developed. They may choose to join at a later stage.

But a couple of things are clear: we should stop assuming that all universities will take part in the TEF; and we should probably start debating what the impact of some leading institutions not taking part might be.


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Reader's comments (2)

One issue is that people seem to assume that because TEF includes the words 'teaching' and 'excellence' that it has anything specifically to do with either. It is a governmental bureaucracy's characterization of teaching excellence just as the REF is a bureaucratic definition of research excellence. I grew up in the US system and only taught MBAs, Executive MBAs and Executive Programmes and I can say without a doubt that TEF would measure none of the things that mattered to whether teaching was 'excellent' and there is little or no value in making comparisons across institutions that are in no way shape or form either in competition for students or would provide valid comparators when it comes to any single institution's calibration of its performance. It also assumes that if the government does not ensure that students get 'value for money' in a regulatory sense that the market will fail them, when there is every incentive for the best institutions to reveal just how good they are. When I taught at Chicago, Vanderbilt and UCLA we had teaching ratings long before they became normal outside the US and there was no government regulator defining what teaching excellence was. You hired good teachers, you promoted people who taught well (conditional of course on their being excellent scholars as well) and you allowed institutions to use the measures that mattered most to their specific cohort of students to do it in a manner that was best. In other words, you trusted those responsible for the students to do well by them knowing that failing to do so had market consequences. What TEF does is say to institutions, "we do not trust you" just as REF says the same about research. I jokingly ask periodically why we don't have AMEF (Academic Management Excellence Framework) where some agency measures not just REF and TEF but how well academic managers and administrators manage REF and TEF. One of the real problems with all of these systems is that they are designed by bureaucracies and executed by administrators/managers (and invariably those that do neither research or teaching or did it in the far reaches of time gone by) who believe that they know more than those doing the research/teaching about what excellence implies. A second issue with these systems is that there is very little line of sight from the measures to specific actions that are meaningful other than to mindlessly try and push the numbers (e.g., putting in reward systems that give something to those that help the administrators hit the numbers or hiring in categories that the framework measures), invariably leading to whole new internal bureaucracies focused on generating what the REF or TEF appears to want to demand. It is good that universities are pushing back on this to some degree. Every £ spent on the systems and every hour of time wasted on these exercises is money and time not being devoted to what matters. For example, despite the REF and equivalent exercises elsewhere, the institutions involved have not risen in terms of their excellence. The best institutions draw the best scholars and students and continue to do so regardless of how they are measured because they compete in a clear market for excellence. Those institutions lower down the food chain simply remain lower down the food chain but now with additional administrative burdens that help no one other than the bureaucracies they create.
Timothy, your case(s) make compelling reading; it/they should be made compulsory reading throughout a sector denuded of common sense in recent years. Thank you.


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