Building the perfect beast

As the sector debates the design of a teaching-ometer, campuses wait to discover the strength of the TEF’s power over fee levels

July 23, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

To anyone unversed in the Groundhog Day debate about measuring teaching quality in universities, it must sound so simple; after all, the research excellence framework is such a cinch. But if Jo Johnson fell into this category on his first day as minister for universities and science, you can be sure that he’s aware of the complexity of the issue now.

In our cover story on the teaching excellence framework, we dive into the tangled thicket of possible metrics and approaches, from efforts to measure that elusive educational “value added”, to career outcomes, to student engagement and classroom observation.

None is straightforward, and all have critics who say they are either poor proxies, or impossible, or impossibly bureaucratic – or all of the above.

And the problems don’t end there. Even if, as some optimists believe, it is possible to gather a basket of indicators that provide a reasonable measure of teaching standards, the question remains about what the government intends to do with the TEF.

It’s clear that university leaders are desperate for the tuition fees cap to be increased in some way, even if only by being linked to the rate of inflation.

But any plan to use TEF results to determine whether a university should or should not be allowed to increase its fees raises some very awkward questions about the potential impact on students, and will be viewed with deep suspicion by institutions until the details are known.

One question, whatever form the TEF takes, is whether the government will take a permissive or a restrictive approach to approving any fee hikes.

Will it mirror access agreements, which universities are expected to pass (even if the Office for Fair Access is taking a harder line this year)? Or will universities find that some are actively blocked as a result of their TEF score? If the latter approach is taken, then the design of this teaching-ometer becomes even more crucial as far as institutions are concerned, and the suspicion among some is that the TEF will be set up to benefit certain types of university – a cunning plan to raise fees selectively.

If, on the other hand, the TEF is very permissive, then it may be seen just as political cover to raise fees while rubber-stamping the status quo – a risk that will be overcome only if the system is not only endorsed by students but if those students see real, tangible benefits.

Hanging over this debate like a toxic miasma is the REF, which many feel has polluted higher education and left universities choking on bureaucracy.

It also cost a fortune – £250 million according to the official review (although some suspect that the real cost is still higher, and the human cost incalculable).

And yet in the end many believe that, for all its shortcomings, the REF is worth the money, at least if it makes the case for the billions of pounds of investment in research in a way that the government, and ultimately the taxpayer, accepts and understands.

The trick with the TEF will be doing the same for additional investment in the form of higher fees – and doing it in a way that doesn’t penalise struggling universities and make matters worse for those studying at them.

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