TEF: to keep it simple would be stupid

August 20, 2015

The article on staff teaching qualifications suggests that the high number of “unknowns” is an obstacle to the inclusion of this measure in the teaching excellence framework (“Will lack of data on teaching qualifications derail TEF?”, News, 13 August). This is to miss the point. It is very important that the indicators used to inform the TEF are appropriate and not those that are easy to collect or politically expedient.

Different parts of the sector perform differently on different measures. Ranking universities by entry tariff would produce a different outcome from one derived from the National Student Survey, the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, contact hours or other indicators. A multifactorial approach is required that does not reduce these differences to a simple rank, score or outcome.

Second, each measure needs to be designed with care as it is capable of being unfairly distorted or it may be seen to discard what is actually important. We should all be concerned about data gathered for one purpose being used for another. An example of this is the release of data by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on teaching qualifications by institution.

The Hefce information contains sector-level and peer group-level data on the teaching qualifications held by academic staff in higher education institutions, as well as the institution’s data for 2013-14. Hefce includes a sector-adjusted benchmark for each institution. We should be particularly sensitive to such datasets and benchmarking as we approach a consultation on the TEF. To deduce factors to be used in the benchmarking calculation, academic staff were categorised as “qualified”, defined as those in the staff record who hold an academic teaching qualification, or “other”. This was said to show the “proportion of qualified staff” in the sector. This is not, of course, what the indicator shows.

Research-led institutions value research and enquiry-based learning and teaching. The proportion of staff holding a teaching qualification that is recognised by the Higher Education Statistics Agency is only part of the measure of quality teaching. It does not in any way show whether academic staff are “qualified”. Almost all academic staff hold a doctorate, which should contribute towards the evidence that they can deliver high-quality research-led teaching.

High numbers of academic staff hold professional qualifications such as those required to be medical doctors, dentists, engineers, architects, nurses and so on. It is essential for some programmes of study to gain professional body accreditation, which also equips staff to be excellent teachers in their discipline.

Many universities now have a probationary requirement for academic staff to undertake initial professional development in teaching, with successful completion of the certificate of learning and teaching in higher education, a taught postgraduate programme accredited by the Higher Education Academy, being compulsory within the first three years of post. Completion of this or similar programmes leads to HEA fellow status, but this is not what makes staff “qualified” as academics, nor does it alone qualify them to profess their discipline.

Measuring the proportion of academic staff who are “qualified” in the current way, while perhaps making it easier to collect and compare data en masse, fails to recognise most of the qualifications, knowledge and skills of individuals who are at the leading edge of their discipline and teach from this knowledge base. The exclusion of highest academic qualification or professional registration creates a partial representation. “Highest qualification” is a field in the Hesa staff record, so it is possible to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced picture.

The current dataset gives only a narrow and unfair representation of whether academic staff are “qualified” and so is unsuitable for the TEF.

Tony Strike
Director of strategy, planning and change
University of Sheffield

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