The concurrence of a beefed-up subject-level teaching excellence framework and the UK’s next research excellence framework leaves universities facing a “never-ending roller coaster” of assessment, a conference has heard.
The Westminster government last month announced plans to transform the TEF – which currently operates at provider level only – with detailed evaluations of higher education providers’ performance in 34 specific subject areas.
Disciplinary-level judgements will be made by expert panels considering student outcome metrics and written submissions from departments, alongside the existing institutional-level assessments.
The new model will be piloted this year, ahead of its full implementation in 2019-20.
But Alan Palmer, head of policy at the MillionPlus group of universities, highlighted that this would coincide with the next REF – a huge undertaking that again involves panels assessing disciplinary-level performance – which will run through 2020.
Speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum conference, Mr Palmer said that he found it “surprising and staggering” that the government had acknowledged that the revised TEF would increase the burden on universities but “does not seem to care”.
The same staff members at institutions would likely be compiling and reviewing submissions for both the REF and the TEF, he said.
“I see a never-ending roller coaster of guidance, consultations, preparations, submissions, results, then strategy revision, with institutions doing nothing more than ‘being accountable’,” Mr Palmer warned.
Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton, told the event that the subject-level TEF risked undermining the positive impact that he perceived from previous iterations of the framework.
“There’s more metrics, there’s more complexity, there’s more burden on staff and it’s more expensive,” he said.
Graeme Rosenberg, TEF manager at the English higher education regulator, the Office for Students, admitted that there would be some overlap in framework submissions for the two exercises but said that the intention was for the final deadlines to be six months apart, with the TEF scheduled for spring 2020 and the REF wrapping up in November.
Panellists also questioned how the OfS would manage the volume of panellists needed for subject-level and provider-level TEF assessments.
Mr Rosenberg said the regulator had estimated that it would need 300 to 400 panel members to look at 3,000 to 4,000 subject submissions and that it had “reconfigured the panels to scale it up”.
He added that the Department for Education had calculated that the subject-level TEF would cost between £16 million and £24 million per exercise, divided between four to six years, with the panels costing costing roughly 25 per cent more. This was one-tenth of the cost of the REF, he said.