Ministers ‘should have waited’ for review before subject-level TEF move

Education secretary’s backing for subject-level exercise before publication of TEF review prompts university warnings of ‘significant diversion of staff time’

September 23, 2019
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English sector figures have voiced concerns about moves by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to force a switch to the subject-level teaching excellence framework before the publication of an independent review of the exercise.

Some in the sector believe that Jo Johnson – creator of the TEF – pushed through approval for the subject-level exercise during his brief return to the post of universities and science minister.

Mr Williamson said in a letter to the Office for Students last week: “I would like the OfS to publish subject-level TEF in 2021.”

Until now the TEF has taken place at a provider level, with government plans to take it to the subject level proving controversial, bringing complaints from universities about complexity, bureaucracy and cost.

An independent review of the TEF by Dame Shirley Pearce, the former Loughborough University vice-chancellor – which was expected to deliver a verdict on the subject-level TEF – has been received by the government but is yet to be published. The report must be laid before Parliament before being published, meaning that will be delayed by the prorogation of Parliament.

The findings of the latest pilots on the subject-level TEF are also yet to be published.

An OfS spokesman said: “We are currently awaiting the findings of the independent review of the TEF.

“We will consider these requests [in the education secretary’s letter] in the context of its recommendations, as well as the government’s response and the findings of the recent pilot of subject-level TEF.”

Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow higher education minister, said there were “very considerable concerns right across the university sector, that we fully share” about subject-level TEF.

He added: “If the Secretary of State wishes to respect the autonomy of the OfS then he should not be issuing peremptory statements, but he should be waiting for Dame Shirley Pearce’s report and then giving a considered response.”

Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association of modern universities, said that the government “should have waited” until the independent review had been published “before taking a decision on whether, or how, to take forward subject-level TEF”.

As currently designed, the subject-level TEF “heaps costly reporting burdens on universities without creating a helpful or accurate rating of teaching quality for students at the end of the process”, added Dr Walker.

Sarah Stevens, director of policy (higher education) at the Russell Group, said: “We welcomed the opportunity to convey our concerns to the independent review that, as currently designed, subject-level TEF is not fit for purpose and risks misleading students.”

The Russell Group looked forward to “working constructively with the government, OfS and the wider sector” on next steps, she added.

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE, said that from what he has heard from those who have piloted subject-level TEF, it “is too burdensome for any additional value that it brings”.

Vanessa Wilson, the University Alliance chief executive, said: “As things stand, this complex and costly subject-level exercise would exacerbate the many shortfalls in the current TEF model.”

The University of Brighton estimates that about 70 members of staff would be involved in the subject-level TEF process over many months.

“This is a significant diversion of staff time, which will be repeated in all participating institutions across the sector,” said Debra Humphris, the university’s vice-chancellor.

“The TEF is important, but there are significant questions to be asked both about the value versus the cost and the methodology of the subject-specific approach.”

Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said that without seeing the pilot results, independent review and government response, it is “very difficult” to know what publishing the subject-level TEF in 2021 means.

“What we do know is if the subject-level TEF is like the pilots, that would be a huge amount of work for universities,” he added.


Print headline: Why the TEF hurry?

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Reader's comments (4)

Subject level independent teaching inspections have been long over due in the university sector. Students undertaking a Common Professional Examination were put into undergraduates lectures where the behaviour of too many of the undergraduate students was unacceptable. On a law Masters course candidates were farmed out across the university slotted into an uncoordinated mish mash of content. In one course the lecturer admitted that she did not understand the SPSS software she was supposed to be teaching. That university boasts every year it has a 98% satisfaction rating. This university has one of the highest number of complaints in the country so that is just is not possible without manipulation of statistics by Keele. Oh yes and that's also the one expanding. Buyer beware.
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I would have thought subject level TEF was a non starter in anything more than the 10 largest Universities and even then I feel that the cost to collect the data compared to the "usefulness" of how it might be processed and used in "calculating" the excellence achieved would not be justified. How would you cope with multi subject students; courses, tutorials and lectures delivered on the sites of partners linked with the main University; (let alone subjects taught at HE College satellite locations); subjects taught at overseas locations as part of a course? How useful would such reports be, given the movement of staff within and between Universities from year to year ? In the financial investment sector, the transfers in and out of specific fund managers often has a major influence on investment performance, perhaps the same forces are at work at Universities who have "star" professors, lecturers etc? Asking the OfS to act before the the results of the pilots and the Pearce Report are published looks like another example of the power of the Johnson family to claim Divine Right.