TEF head makes case Down Under for ‘rebalancing’ sector targets

Sir Chris Husbands visits Australia as it considers introducing performance-related funding system similar to UK’s teaching excellence framework

February 11, 2019
TEF results: alternative providers and further education

Assessments such as the UK’s teaching excellence framework are necessary to correct an “overemphasis” on research, its chair has said, as Australia considers a similar exercise.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said during a visit Down Under that evaluations such as the TEF could help discourage institutions from putting all their eggs in one basket.

He said that excellence assessments had emerged first in research, and the consequence had been “to drive universities to over-prioritise research and under-prioritise teaching”.

“To some extent, what we’re doing is to rebalance the system between teaching and research,” said Sir Chris, who has helped to oversee two TEF rounds so far.  

He said that universities were complex institutions with many roles. “It would be naive to suppose that many universities are going to be equally outstanding at every aspect of their missions,” he said.

“If you want to have successful, dynamic, diverse university systems you’ve got to be able to reflect the diversity in the measures you’re using.”

Sir Chris said that the TEF was a “work in progress”, with the metrics needing improvement. It currently draws on data on student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment, as well as institutional submissions.

“However, the TEF, in principle, has shifted the focus onto teaching [and] minority groups in a way that has not happened before,” he added. “In a mass higher education system, many applicants do not have the social capital that traditional university applicants have. They cannot navigate their way around the system. The market research we have done has told us that applicants really value the TEF.”

Sir Chris was in Australia to launch a strategic partnership with Melbourne-based La Trobe University. His visit coincided with the final stages of consultation on Australia’s proposed performance funding system, with responses to a government discussion paper due on 15 February.

La Trobe vice-chancellor John Dewar agreed that teaching-focused assessments could help shift the emphasis. He said that Australia’s now defunct Learning and Teaching Performance Fund had done “a lot to improve the standing of teaching as an activity”.

But Professor Dewar said that Australia already had “very transparent” metrics through the Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching website. He said that student satisfaction scores had increased “quite significantly” over the past few years, and evidence suggested that Australian higher education “performs pretty well compared with other sectors around the world”.

He said concerns that some universities were admitting underprepared students had already been addressed through work on admissions transparency and increased entry requirements for some education degrees. “There are much more effective ways of tackling that [issue] than performance-based funding,” he added. “I’m not clear what problem it’s designed to solve.”

The partnership between Sheffield Hallam and La Trobe encompasses teaching, research, staff development and policy. On teaching, the two institutions plan exchanges involving at least 50 undergraduates each per semester, and joint degrees starting with a dual-badged programme in sport and hospitality management.

Research ties will focus on food production, sports, health and social care – areas of strength for both institutions.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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