To improve teaching, give academics a better deal

Using the teaching excellence framework to drive up teaching standards is fundamentally misconceived, says Matt Waddup

February 14, 2019
Burn out and stress

The UK’s teaching excellence and student outcomes framework (TEF) is what you get when you decide that you want to beat universities with a stick but do not have the evidence to justify doing so.

Purportedly aimed at measuring teaching excellence and outcomes for students, the exercise does neither. In fact, its expensively gathered conclusions are superficial, oversimplified and ineffective. While student retention, satisfaction and employment prospects are clearly important, they are not directly related to teaching quality but, rather, to demographic, geographical, cultural and economic factors.

It is reported that the Australian government is contemplating introducing something similar next year. But before it does so, it should examine the UK’s experience very carefully.

The University and College Union has done just that. This week, we publish research by Matt O’Leary, Vanessa Cui and Amanda French of Birmingham City University that looks at how the TEF has been implemented and how staff view it. The survey of 6,000 UCU members finds very low levels of support for the TEF, with just 10 per cent saying that they welcome its introduction.

The failings in the implementation of the TEF are substantial. The report finds, for example, that 71 per cent of staff feel that the TEF fails to recognise or reward teaching excellence, while 81 per cent do not believe that it helps to inform students’ university choices.

Our research follows a Department for Education study, published last month, that revealed that less than half of students were aware of the TEF when they applied to university, and that of those who had heard of it, two-thirds did not understand how it worked. Only 15 per cent reported having used it to help their decision-making, even though “better informing student choice” is a key objective of the TEF.

In a normal world, no government would ignore these findings, but we seem to have reached the stage where the voices of those who make our sector great are marginalised and belittled. It is a culture in which things are done “to” higher education rather than with it.

However, hope springs eternal. The government has agreed to an independent review of the TEF, led by former Loughborough University vice-chancellor Dame Shirley Pearce. Encouragingly, Chris Skidmore used his first speech as universities minister to describe the review as “an important opportunity to take stock of the TEF from a constructively critical perspective”.

A recognition of the importance of teaching is no bad thing, but the TEF is not fit for purpose. As it has little or no support beyond the bureaucracy created to monitor it, the review should be bold and tell the government to dump it. Even more importantly, it should tell ministers that if they want high-quality teaching, they must focus on creating an environment in which high-quality teachers can thrive.

Education secretary Damian Hinds has rightly raised the issue of the workloads of schoolteachers, but the government has been silent about the spiralling hours worked by university staff. Although the pay and perks of those at the top have caused embarrassing headlines, staff pay has been held down for years.

Meanwhile, the lack of security faced by many teaching staff would probably shock most students. At some UK institutions, about half the teaching is done by people on some form of insecure contract, yet universities and the government turn a blind eye. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and studies in the US have found that students taught by staff on insecure contracts tend to graduate at a lower rate and are more likely to drop out.

The government must also look at ways to bolster the standing and professionalism of teaching. If it is to remain an attractive career choice, there must be genuine opportunities for promotion and high-quality professional development.

The message from Pearce to the government should be that it is staff who make a university what it is for students. We have had enough of TEF-style gimmicks. What we need is practical support to resolve the key issues of casualisation, workloads and pay restraint, which are so damaging to the profession.

Matt Waddup is head of policy at the University and College Union.

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Print headline: The key figures? Teachers

Reader's comments (1)

"At some UK institutions, about half the teaching is done by people on some form of insecure contract, yet universities and the government turn a blind eye." This is a global issue: and it can be argued that most teaching is currently done by people on insecure contracts: adjuncts and non-tenured professors. Let's also remember that the teaching load of tenured professors is minimal, if they teach at all, because they are expected to teach postgraduate courses where students do most of the work. "If it is to remain an attractive career choice, there must be genuine opportunities for promotion and high-quality professional development" University professors are under significant pressures to please journal editors and senior colleagues, and that is their main priority. Therefore promotion should not be tied to stupid metrics and unreasonable expectations.

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