Lessons must be learned from the use of ratings in the schools and healthcare sectors if the teaching excellence framework is to be a success, according to a thinktank.
A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute says that the government should consider delaying the TEF to allow for a more meaningful measure of university teaching standards to be developed, drawing on the experience of Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.
Author Louisa Darian, deputy director of WonkHE, says that Ofsted and CQC ratings have developed over time to draw on a wide range of sources, including site visits and outcomes data.
In contrast, reviews conducted by the Quality Assurance Agency – the initial measure proposed for the TEF – are of limited interest to students, Ms Darian says. For later stages of the TEF, site visits are not currently proposed and existing outcomes data for higher education, such as graduate employment records, are of limited quality, she adds.
Ms Darian says that, while both Ofsted and the CQC have provider-level ratings, they also assess specific services delivered by institutions, allowing parents and patients to make informed choices.
In the first instance, the TEF will be an institution-level award, and the government has said that subject-level ratings will only be considered over time. However, Ms Darian writes that such detail will be “very important for students who often choose institutions based on their preferred subject”.
She adds that the stability of Ofsted has probably been key to its impact in the schools sector, whereas the numerous changes to the organisations monitoring the healthcare sector prior to 2009 most likely diluted their impact.
Given the current instability in higher education, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England consulting on new quality assessment arrangements and Hefce itself facing possible replacement by an Office for Students, Ms Darian recommends that the government should consider delaying the start of the TEF.
This, she says, would allow it to be fitted into the new regulatory environment and quality assurance framework. And this would allow external examiners, which face increased professionalisation under Hefce’s reforms, to contribute to a richer dataset for the TEF.
Ms Darian acknowledges that delaying the TEF would mean that universities would not be able to access an inflationary increase in tuition fees in 2017-18. But she adds that there is nothing to “prohibit a small fee increase in recognition of rising cost pressures, if the government were minded to do so”.
Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi, said that ministers should look to learn from a range of sectors for the TEF, since there was “no off-the-shelf solution available”.
“Ratings have existed for many years for nurseries, schools and hospitals,” Mr Hillman said. “These provide positive and negative lessons for the new TEF.
“If we consider them closely, we can find out how to ensure the TEF does not become too big, too bossy or too bureaucratic – and that it hits the right target.”