Pessimistic prognosis for subject TEF as Pearce review nears

Disciplinary-level assessment unlikely to survive in its current form, say sector leaders

June 27, 2019
End of the line

Sector leaders are increasingly sceptical that the subject-level version of the UK’s teaching excellence framework will survive in its current form, as an independent review of the assessment nears completion.

University responses to proposals for the disciplinary-level evaluation have been almost universally negative and one senior figure told Times Higher Education that they believed Dame Shirley Pearce, the former Loughborough University vice-chancellor who is leading the review, would reflect these concerns in her recommendations when they are published next month.

“I think she’s going to recommend some big changes,” they said. “It’s most likely to be around subject-level TEF.”

In their submissions to the Pearce review, mission groups made clear their anxiety about the burden of conducting assessments at disciplinary level, and the potential cost – put at an average of up to £246,000 per provider, or £37.6 million across the sector, by Universities UK.

Criticism has also focused on the statistical shortcomings of TEF assessments – problems that would only be exacerbated by consideration of smaller sample sizes at subject level. This broad issue was flagged last month by the review of post-18 education in England chaired by Philip Augar.

While the Augar review was broadly supportive of the TEF, some highlight that its overarching recommendations – a reduction in tuition fees, and the replacement of the shortfall with public funding – call into question the purpose of the TEF.

Plans for the assessment were drawn up under Jo Johnson’s vision as universities minister to put “students at the heart of the system” but, if the Augar recommendations are implemented, assessments of a degree’s social and economic value would rival student choice in driving funding and incentivising provision.

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE, said that there was “a lot of hope in the sector that [getting rid of the subject-level TEF] is a real possibility”.

“That’s the logical balance of the argument. If you introduce subject-level TEF, it sinks under the weight of its own bureaucracy,” he said.

The results of the second year of a pilot of the subject-level TEF are expected to be finalised this autumn. Like the current institutional-level TEF, a subject-level assessment would evaluate performance in areas such as student satisfaction and retention, and graduate employment, alongside written submissions.

However, the Department for Education did little to win support for the subject-level TEF with its proposed design. Originally it had considered two models: one giving broad subject areas ratings of “gold”, “silver”, and “bronze”, and another that would have seen individual departments assessed only if student metrics suggested that their performance varied significantly from the overall institutional award.

Last October it switched to advocating detailed assessments of 34 specific subject areas, alongside a continuing institutional-level assessment. Such a system would result in the largest universities having to submit 193 pages of information, UUK said.

Tom Ward, deputy vice-chancellor (student education) at the University of Leeds, said it was “fairly likely” that the review would make recommendations around the purpose of TEF. There has been a “drift in its mission…at one point it was to inform applicants, but now it has multiple uses”, he said. “The most valuable outcome would be to suggest it can most usefully be used for enhancement of education and it should be designed for that purpose.”

Sir Chris Husbands, TEF chair and Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor, said that the TEF had played an “important” role in “improving the focus on teaching”. “Obviously, the future of policy depends on the results of the review of the TEF and the results of the pilots,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Pessimistic prognosis for UK's subject-level TEF as Pearce review nears

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