Why my university is not entering the TEF

Open University vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks on why his institution will not be in the teaching excellence framework this year

January 26, 2017
Car squeezing through a narrow arch

First, let me say that the Open University is fully in support of the stated aims of the teaching excellence framework (TEF): to encourage true excellence in teaching and to provide a counterweight to universities’ excessive focus on their research metrics. But our concern with the TEF, at least as it would apply to the OU, is that it would not reflect our teaching excellence – which we believe is exceptional – and would adversely reflect on the type of students we attract.

When it was established in 1969, the OU represented an alternative to existing routes to higher education, giving more people the chance to study at this level and achieve their potential. Things are no different nearly 50 years on. We want to continue and renew our central mission (and we’re certainly not standing still ourselves in regard to that).

The fundamentals of the TEF do present a valuable and useful assessment to gauge student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment, among other things. We recognise that the TEF will look at more than metrics, but the metrics will nevertheless be an important component. What we have found with standardised metrics across the higher education sector is that the distinctive nature of OU students is not easily represented.

Students at the OU, for example, do not always continue their studies one year after the next; patterns of study vary. Our students are of mixed ages and have different motivations; they have varying disabilities and come from across the UK. More than three-quarters of OU students combine work and study, hoping to further their careers through their learning, thus the metrics for graduate employment destination simply do not work for us.

Most importantly, our students can study with no prior qualifications – more than half have one A level or less on entry. This underlines our unparalleled openness. It’s also why the last thing we want, in order to look good in the TEF tables, is to have to change our entry requirements and narrow our student intake.

Benchmarking applied to the TEF metrics might be appropriate for the majority of the sector, but we do not think that it currently works for our students. We believe that it could discriminate against them (and potential future students like them) for who they are rather than how they are taught and what they really achieve.

Social mobility at the OU is at the core of everything we do. We believe that, in terms of learning gain, we’re on a par with – if not higher than – any other UK university. We are one of the largest social mobility engines in the UK, and we remain committed to that aim.

As the recent Green Paper on the industrial strategy makes clear, if such a strategy is going to work in every community, the UK government, responsible for higher education in England, knows that we need lifelong learning opportunities for education and training for all – which is exactly what we provide.

Developing a framework for measuring teaching quality in an increasingly diverse higher education sector is a difficult task; likewise, building a country that works for everyone, giving them the opportunities to go as far as their talents will take them.

A year’s grace gives us the chance to work closely with the government to resolve these measurement issues and join the TEF subsequently. It will allow us to see whether the assessment process will, as the government has claimed, genuinely be able to take into account wider evidence to recognise the distinctive nature of different provision.

By its nature, the OU is different, and this is a particular example of how our distinctiveness means that we need to take a different position today and remain out of this trial year. Once we can be confident that the TEF is a true measure of teaching excellence across the whole sector, the OU will join it willingly and, I confidently believe, successfully too.

Peter Horrocks is vice-chancellor of the Open University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Typical OU sleight of hand here. Horrocks well knows that the OU's key problem is the appalling retention and progression of its students. The phrases 'fall in PT numbers...part of a national picture, etc.' is a smokescreen in the context of the OU as the this university's main problem is that it loses many of the students it does recruit. The story is therefore not only about recruitment, which is how the OU wants to frame it. The TEF will expose this fact explicitly, though for many years it has been visible in HESA data. Despite many, many projects over recent years at the OU aiming to improve retention and prevent drop out, no dent has been made in the statistics which continue to show 55%-60% of new students (and in some subjects much lower) complete or pass their first module. Given the scale of the OU, this means tens of thousands dropping out each year. Tracking studies, well known internally, show that over 7 years only 14-17% of students who started together achieve a qualification. How well did we really serve these students, who will have to pay back their loans and did not benefit from their study? Nothing will or can change about these stats until managed open entry, supported by many in the OU, is implemented. For many consider it immoral that the OU has a ruthless recruitment drive for new students without any proper, structured engagement with applicants to determine if they are ready for study - whether readiness is time and commitment, or skills of suitable literacy and numeracy - and to turn people away with good advice as to alternatives if it is obvious they are not prepared. When fees have tripled and almost all students are on fee-loans, as is the case at the OU, this must be the only responsible action to take. Put bluntly, the OU is knowingly recruiting students who will fail. The OU faces a serious long term reputational risk as the sector moves into a far more stringent and publicly accountable audit culture, and has no strategy to succeed in TEF-world.

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