Sector leaders predict TEF will be scaled down and pushed back

Long-awaited publication of Pearce review expected in autumn, but lack of time and changes in government priorities make 2021 awards unlikely

July 27, 2020
Source: iStock

Sector leaders say the 2021 round of the UK’s teaching excellence framework (TEF) is unlikely to go ahead and predict a scaled-back version when it finally comes around.

Although the awards under the current TEF are due to run out in 2021, the delay in publishing Dame Shirley Pearce’s independent review of the exercise, coupled with the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, makes assessments next year unlikely.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, recently said the Pearce review, which was completed in 2019, was “likely to be published in autumn” this year. However, a period of consultation is needed before changes are made, leaving little time for universities – already under extreme pressure from the pandemic fallout – to prepare their submissions for a new assessment.

The 2018-19 TEF was the last exercise in its current form, as the Office for Students (OfS) was tasked with developing a new framework following the results of the review and subject-level pilots.

The TEF, once an important education policy for the government, has seemingly fallen by the wayside for policymakers, several experts told Times Higher Education.

“Responding to the pandemic and to the very different signals coming from the new minister about widening participation has pushed TEF and subject-level TEF far from the centre of focus, and it would take a lot more credible thought about purpose and design to get the sector to re-engage,” according to Tom Ward, deputy vice-chancellor (student education) at the University of Leeds.

Once the review is published, the next assessment will require “consultation, thought and redesign, so it inevitably delays the next round of TEF, if it is to be taken seriously”, he said.

Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, said it was “right that the government is allowing the OfS the time to consider future options for the TEF properly, given the major shortcomings identified in the subject-level TEF pilots”.

He added that he hoped the review’s delay was a “reflection of genuine open-mindedness on the part of ministers and the regulator about the future shape − and name − of the framework”.

“As the new Graduate Outcomes data [which replace the old Destination of Leavers of Higher Education survey, used to calculate TEF results] released last month is considered to be ‘experimental’ by the Office for National Statistics, we may have to wait at least another year before any ratings from a ‘new TEF’ can begin to be calculated,” he said.

Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said that “given the costs of running the TEF and the financial challenges facing the sector, it is likely that we will see a significantly scaled-back version”.

“This would almost certainly mean that it will not run at subject level. Given recent ministerial comments, it appears that there will be a far greater focus on graduate outcomes and, in particular, ‘low value’ courses,” he said. The problem with this is that graduate salaries tell us nothing about the quality of degree programmes, he added.

David Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said the problems identified with a subject-level TEF were “a challenge for the government’s current rhetoric regarding low-value courses”, as it would “indicate a desire to see a course-level analysis and, worse, a subject analysis. I suspect this tension between government positioning and reality is part of the delay.”

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, said the fact that the review has not been published suggests that it is not a bland endorsement of the TEF but had identified fundamental problems with the methodology.

She also said that the whole nature of teaching had changed in response to the pandemic. “If much teaching stays online, then we’d be evaluating universities on a very different teaching profile than the one assessed in TEF,” she said.

For Michael Merrifield, professor of astronomy at the University of Nottingham, “the last thing we need right now is to have to start thinking about preparing documentation for TEF, when we are all at full stretch on the teaching side trying…to build something more sustainable for the coming years”.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The independent review of TEF and the Government response has been delayed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, to ensure providers can focus on the outbreak and their students. Further information is likely to be announced alongside the spending review.”

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Reader's comments (2)

The TEF as a whole requires a 'cost-benefit analysis' - the amount of time & effort spent by universities is disproportionate to the return, and going down to subject level is only going to make this worse.
Thank god for any attempt to descale and eliminate this nonsense its silly bronze, silver gold awards are almost meaningless and mislead students. Some of the worst universities have gold and the best bronze it is completely useless. Talk about a bureaucratic waste of time and money !