Sickness unto TEF
“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an exercise that hardly anyone understands.”
That was how Ted Chippings, our head of teaching excellence framework submissions, responded to the contention by Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, that recent changes to the TEF methodology risked making it impossible for anyone to know how the final decisions had ever been reached.
Mr Chippings told our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that the new metric had been very much misunderstood from the outset. “For some reason or other, the idea got around that the teaching excellence framework was to be a measure of teaching excellence. In other words, it was assumed that it would look at the actual quality of real teaching in institutions of higher education and reward those institutions that placed a strong emphasis on teaching quality in lectures and seminars. So, for example, it might reward those universities that eschewed the overuse of poorly paid graduate teaching assistants and promoted academics on the basis of their teaching ability. It might even have been expected to give especial credit to those universities that helped disadvantaged entrants achieve top-class results in finals.”
“But all those assumptions were false?” asked Ponting.
“Absolutely,” insisted Mr Chippings. “How could it have been otherwise? Just imagine how some of our finest universities might have fared if such crude measures of teaching excellence had been adopted. No, what was needed were measurements of teaching excellence that took the emphasis off actual teaching and concentrated on such other vital matters as student dropout rates and how much students earned after graduation.”
“And what was the outcome of all these deliberations?”
“It was really quite remarkable. By concentrating on the very outcomes that favoured already pre-eminent universities, the TEF confirmed the pre-eminence of those already pre-eminent universities.”
“It was a clear-cut as that?” wondered Ponting.
“Absolutely. A couple of Russell Group universities like York and Durham did surprisingly emerge as second-class and thereby originally miss out on Gold status, but when they reapplied it needed only a couple of tweaks to raise them to their rightful position.”
“But hadn’t Professor Ashwin spoken of the manner in which those very tweaks risked turning the TEF into a meaningless exercise? In his words: ‘What is the TEF doing and what functions does it serve are becoming increasingly difficult to answer in a positive way.’”
Mr Chippings was able to give our reporter this vital reassurance. “Although it is clear that the workings of the TEF are almost completely incomprehensible to the average overworked academic, and although the framework has never been heard of by nearly two-thirds of the 85,000 student applicants who took part in a recent Ucas poll, what really matters is that this exercise in the firm hands of Sir Chris Husbands, the chair of the TEF. And although Sir Chris has admitted with admirable frankness that the task of making the exercise possible to understand is a matter for the government rather than himself, he has nevertheless felt able to declare that ‘my job is to deliver the TEF specification, transparently, robustly and reliably.’”
“Even though what the TEF most significantly lacks is transparency, robustness and reliability?”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
(Editorial note: might we now have a rest from the TEF? Thank you.)
As we go to press, we hear rumours that our vice-chancellor in a confidential internal document has openly referred to the possibility of Poppleton University going private. Could this be true? Watch this space!