Academics have expressed concern about the growing cost to UK universities of participating in the teaching excellence framework after the government admitted that its latest plans for the exercise would lead to a “higher burden on providers”.
For the subject-level version of the country’s sector-wide evaluation of teaching standards, ministers had been considering two models of assessment: one that would have seen broad subject areas given ratings of “gold”, “silver” or “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.
Now, however, the Westminster government has announced plans to conduct detailed assessments of universities’ performance in 34 specific subject areas, assessing them in areas such as student satisfaction and retention, and graduate employment.
Detailing its plans for the second year of the subject-level pilot, the Department for Education said that a consultation with universities had raised concerns about the lack of coherence in the broad subject areas that had been under consideration previously, and the lack of robustness in the “by exception” model.
While the revised model will lead to “a higher burden on providers and a greater cost of running the exercise”, the “first priority should be to develop a robust model of assessment that produces meaningful ratings for students”, according to the DfE.
Under the new proposals, which will be piloted this year before being implemented in 2019-20, provider-level and subject-level assessments will run in parallel, with the main panel being given the opportunity to consider the profile of disciplinary ratings before settling on a final overall score.
However, reflecting the increased burden, subject-level assessments will only be conducted every other year. Participation in the TEF is a condition of English universities’ registration with the Office for Students.
Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said that the revised proposals looked like a “massive undertaking”, requiring the formation of large numbers of assessment panels.
“If they are going to assess every subject in the way they say then clearly that will be a big administrative burden, not just for institutions but clearly for the TEF itself,” Professor Ashwin said. “I don’t see how the OfS and the sector can afford to do that.”
Other proposed changes for the second year of the pilot include the introduction of two new metrics from the National Student Survey, covering learning resources and how universities take account of the “student voice”. Earnings data from the Longitudinal Education Outcomes dataset will now be a “core” metric, rather than being something that could be considered “supplementary” information.
However, widely criticised plans to measure the “teaching intensity” of courses have been dropped. This could have seen universities assessed according to their “gross teaching quotient” – a measure of contact hours, weighted by class size, thus rewarding small-group teaching.