TEF ‘is about much more than teaching’

Focus on teaching in proposed framework ignores its primary role as extra quality assurance tool, claims researcher

July 12, 2016
Andrew Gunn, University of Leeds
Andrew Gunn, University of Leeds

Higher education has largely misunderstood what the teaching excellence framework is trying to measure, an education academic has argued.

The TEF is not simply trying to assess teaching offered in lectures and classrooms but the “entire teaching function of a university”, Andrew Gunn, a researcher in higher education policy at the University of Leeds, told an education symposium at the University of East London's Cass School of Education and Communities on 6 July.

“It is assessing everything that goes on before admission – from outreach, choosing candidates and interviews – to the actual teaching environment and then everything that students do after graduation,” Dr Gunn explained.

“The ‘T’ in the TEF does not really mean teaching as most staff understand it, but teaching in a very bureaucratic quality assurance sense,” he said.

The proposed policy, which is likely to lead to differentiated tuition fees from September 2019, should be viewed mainly as a tool to improve quality assurance, Dr Gunn added.

“You could argue that we need a new phase of quality assurance, especially with the emergence of a for-profit sector which did not exist in the 1990s when the current system was created,” he said.

Dr Gunn, who is currently researching the TEF and other recent UK higher education reforms, claimed that the framework’s reliance on student satisfaction surveys to identify good teaching would mean that some outstanding educators may not be recognised, while others delivering superficially impressive classes would be praised.

“It’s quite possible that a student could really enjoy a class that was actually totally awful [in content terms],” he said.

“The problem is that undergraduates are not comparing their course with a previous degree they’ve taken,” he added, saying that consumer comparisons are usually informed by experience of a variety of providers.

The research symposium also heard from Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at UCL Institute of Education, who argued that the TEF has been positioned as the “analogue” or “counterbalance” to the research excellence framework, but had very little in common with the REF.

“The REF is measuring directly outputs of research, but this will not happen with the TEF by definition, so we are falling back on proxy measures of metrics,” said Sir Peter.

While most academics largely agreed on what constitutes research excellence, “we simply do not agree on what excellent teaching looks like”, he added.

Sir Peter believed that many academics “secretly loved” the REF as it often led to greater kudos or bargaining power within universities, but the same would not be true of the TEF.

“Too many people see this as an invasion of their space, their professional autonomy and individual freedom,” he said.


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Reader's comments (3)

I'm not sure why this article only reports on the men who spoke. Miriam David and I made contributions. For the record, here'a summary of what I said written with Rhiannon Firth, one of the event's organisers. I based my talk on my own positioning as someone who used to be an employed academic, but who has left academia, or rather, as I then corrected herself, has now become a ‘differently-employed’ academic. I suggested that institutionalisation is a kind of addiction. I described how, since leaving university employment and becoming freelance, I have become much more involved in politics, indicating a synergy between these two shifts. I argued that institutions, including through metrics and performance measures like the TEF and REF, shape and structure our lives and impact on the individuals within them to the extent that their perceptions of time, shape, space and possibility are entirely altered. Citing Deborah Talbot, I argued that employment at universities resembles a kind of Stockholm syndrome, whereby someone develops empathy with and seeks validation for and through their captor. I ended by saying that we need to think about and act against the ways in which we are captured, trapped and limited by the brutality of universities and other institutions.
I agree with the poster above. Why did the THE ignore the contributions of Prof. Miriam David and Dr Heather Mendick (both inspiring academics, by the way) to this event? While this may seem like a random decision, I have noticed the same pattern in other articles.
It is inevitable that some contributions to round table events like these are not reported - it has nothing to do with the gender of the speaker, as Dr Mendick has claimed elsewhere. Dr Gunn's talk presented the most immediate news line on the TEF and one which we haven't really covered yet. Peter Scott, one of the foremost commentators on UK HE, did so likewise. While interesting, David's feminist critique of the TEF has been covered elsewhere, while readers can judge for themselves what Mendick's biographical approach adds to the TEF debate.

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