TEF: a useless task

September 15, 2016

In the early 1950s, I was a chemistry undergraduate in one of the best departments in the country. The lecturing was mostly awful and tutorials non-existent, but academic standards were very high, particularly in research. I stayed on for my PhD in spite of the teaching quality: the research reputation was paramount.

When asked to advise a student applying for an undergraduate place, I tell them to look at the research excellence framework league tables for the subject they wish to study and to use those as a guide to the “quality” of departments. I believe that the teaching in departments that rank high in the REF will be plenty good enough, even though they may not rate highly in any teaching assessment.

I was a teaching quality assessor, in chemistry, in the very early days of assessments. Making a final judgement on a department was difficult, because departments attached so much importance to the result. I think this importance turned out to be exaggerated, and I doubt that new applicants paid much attention to the assessment. I do not think that today’s students would pay much attention to the proposed teaching excellence framework judgements. Students are much more interested in the general perceived reputation of the university, geographic location, attractiveness of the campus (including facilities) and the availability and costs of accommodation.

The proposed TEF could tempt lecturers to dumb down lectures in order to get a high rating from the students. As students may never highly rate the more difficult part of some subjects, however well taught, there could well be a temptation to remove the teaching of some parts of a subject altogether.

I think the TEF would be a waste of time and money, and I am not surprised that several universities have opted out already.

Michael Hollas
Henley on Thames


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