The TEF, ravens and mistaken measures

September 8, 2016

In “Some Russell Group universities ‘could opt out of the TEF’” (News, 1 September), Chris Husbands is quoted as saying: “The TEF will give students a powerful piece of additional information to inform their judgements on university and course choice. Clearly universities that are not in the TEF will be outside this.”

One of the late Peter Cook’s most endearing creations was Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, who had devoted his life to teaching ravens to fly underwater. That he had not so far succeeded did not prevent him from claiming that he had learned from his mistakes and was sure that he could repeat them.

Past experience with teaching quality assessment and other such exercises confirms that there is no way in which the information gathered for the teaching excellence framework can be a valid and reliable guide to teaching quality: there are simply too many variables. However, this will not stop those universities that take part from wasting huge efforts trying to prove the contrary.

As a distinguished pedagogue and a former director of the UCL Institute of Education, one might have expected Husbands to have been aware of this.

Roger Brown
Emeritus professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University

Re “Who suffers if leading universities opt out of the TEF?” (1 September). Some seem to assume that the teaching excellence framework must be about “teaching” and “excellence”. But it is only a governmental bureaucracy’s characterisation of teaching excellence.

Having grown up in the US system and taught MBAs, executive MBAs and executive programmes, I can say without doubt that the TEF would measure none of the things that matter to whether teaching is “excellent”.

American universities had teaching ratings long before they became normal elsewhere, and there was no government regulator defining teaching excellence. You hired good teachers, you promoted people who taught well (conditional on their being excellent scholars as well) and you allowed institutions to use the measures that mattered most to their students as they saw fit. You trusted those responsible for the students to do well by them, knowing that failing to do so had market consequences.

The TEF says to institutions, “we do not trust you”, and the research excellence framework says the same about research. I jokingly ask why we don’t have an academic management excellence framework – where some agency measures not just the REF and the TEF but also how well managers and administrators run those exercises.

It is good that universities are pushing back on this to some degree. Every pound spent and every hour wasted on these exercises is money and time not being devoted to what matters. The best institutions draw the best scholars and students, and continue to do so regardless of how they are measured because they compete in a clear market for excellence. Those lower down the food chain simply remain lower down the food chain but now with additional administrative burdens that help no one other than the bureaucracies they create.


Send to

Letters should be sent to:
Letters for publication in Times Higher Education should arrive by 9am Monday.
View terms and conditions.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations

Michael Parkin illustration (9 March 2017)

Cramming study into the shortest possible time will impoverish the student experience and drive an even greater wedge between research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff, says Tom Cutterham