PVC: subject-level TEF ‘risks freezing disciplines in time’

Birmingham’s Kathleen Armour emphasises need for collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries

September 30, 2019
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Running the UK’s teaching excellence framework at subject level risks leaving academic fields “frozen in time” and could hamper interdisciplinary innovation, a sector leader has warned.

Kathleen Armour, pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Birmingham, said that bringing disciplines together “in interesting ways will move us forward into new areas of knowledge”. However, attempting to assess educational standards based on traditional subject units would discourage institutions from innovating and making advances, Professor Armour told a panel discussion organised by Times Higher Education with the non-profit arm of software company Salesforce.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, recently told the English regulator, the Office for Students, that he would like it to publish the subject-level TEF in 2021. Currently, universities are rated, with a gold, silver or bronze award, only at institutional level.

Universities have been particularly concerned by the Department for Education’s decision to drop plans to assess broad subject areas, or to assess individual departments only if student metrics suggested that their performance varied significantly from the overall institutional award – and to instead advocate conducting detailed assessments of 34 specific subject areas, alongside continuing institutional-level evaluations.

Anxiety has been heightened by Mr Williamson’s decision to push ahead with the subject-level TEF before the publication of a review of the overall exercise by Dame Shirley Pearce, the former Loughborough University vice-chancellor, which was expected to express misgivings about disciplinary-level assessments.

Professor Armour said that one of the problems she had with the TEF was that “if we are not careful we will measure universities on subjects that have become frozen in time”.

“Yes, we can have a TEF, but don’t let it get to the level where you are starting to drive what universities do, because we will be preserved in aspic, but the rest of the world won’t be. It’s not clever,” she said.

“If you look at where research is going – look at research council calls, for example – they are multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary,” she said. “If research is going there, it shows you that teaching needs to go there.”

Professor Armour added that there was still a place for traditional subjects, but “others will choose to put history, ethics and anything you care to mention together in interesting ways that will move us forward into new areas of knowledge”.

Universities have expressed wider concerns about the subject-level TEF, focusing on the potential cost – put at an average of up to £246,000 per provider, or £37.6 million across the sector, by Universities UK – as well as the administrative burden, and the potential exacerbation of the exercise’s statistical shortcomings by the use of smaller sample sizes.

At the THE/Salesforce event, Professor Armour also said that she believed degree courses should move away from the traditional three-year model to one in which students accumulated qualifications over time.

“That requires the funding structures to allow that to happen. As soon as we move to per module funding, we’re there,” she said.

Professor Armour added that a lot of this lifelong learning would have to take place online and that universities would have to accept that they must put as much into maintaining and upgrading their digital infrastructure as they do their physical campuses.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Scholar: subject-level TEF ‘risks freezing disciplines in time’

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