For those who have been in the profession long enough, talk in recent weeks of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ will have a familiar ring to it. Between 1992-1995 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) conducted on-site subject reviews, known as TQA (Teaching Quality Assurance). By 2001 subjects that had scored well were exempt from further on-site inspections of teaching and the process became known as QAA (standing for the Quality Assurance Agency – the independent regulatory body that monitors standards in UK HE). QAA now conducts institutional audits every six years.
Goodbye QAA, Hello TEF?
But now things are changing. On 1 July 2015 Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, announced that there would be a new Teaching Excellence Framework for monitoring teaching quality in England, to replace the QAA system of cyclical inspection. While few details have been released, a Green Paper is anticipated this autumn, with implementation expected in 2017/2018. The stated aims of the TEF include rebalancing of university priorities away from research and towards teaching, enhancing the student experience, driving up teaching quality, and rewarding individuals, departments and institutions for high-quality teaching. It is also proposed that the TEF will use existing ‘light-touch’ metrics to gather information, not on-site inspections.
A day before Jo Johnson’s proposal, HEFCE released a separate consultation document to review quality assessment provision in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. While HEFCE and BIS appear to be running on parallel tracks here, HEFCE notes that it is ‘mindful of the need to avoid duplication’. In its review HEFCE ask for responses to a number of proposals, including strengthening the external examiner system (i.e. creating a national register), enhancing internal monitoring procedures, and monitoring academic outcomes, student satisfaction, and graduate employment. How this might work with the proposed TEF remains to be seen, although we should bear in mind that HEFCE’s remit is wider than that of the TEF (i.e. TEF could conceivably be a component of the broader QA provision across the UK).
League tables and fees
There is some unease about the linking of the TEF to financial incentives. In particular, there has been talk that TEF results might allow universities to increase fees on some (high scoring) courses. This would open the door for differential pricing, and would be a de facto removal of the tuition fees cap. BIS counters such arguments by noting that, under the present system, financial incentives for universities come from grant capture for research and international student fees, but that there are few rewards for good teaching.
What measures might be used?
The measures the TEF might use to assess quality are ‘outcome focused’ – e.g. degree results and employment data (including earnings). Some have noted, however, that these could not take into account the advantages accrued to graduates with pre-existing social capital. To offer financial reward based on employability and earnings metrics might also encourage institutions to focus more on entry to high-paying professions than on degree results.
Others worry about unintended consequences. These include the introduction of a grade point system, in order to guarantee comparability across the board when examining degree result data. Inclusion of student satisfaction as a metric also raises the danger of academics coming under pressure to please students, at the cost of academic rigor. There are also fears that TEF would simply duplicate the problems of the REF, encouraging institutions to massage data and create a ‘star’ transfer market in order to come out on top. Lastly, there are concerns about the administrative burden the TEF might place on academics and managers who already have to deal with the demands of the REF.
So what does it mean for me?
That all depends on where you are in UK HE. The TEF plans currently apply only to England; but HEFCE review covers Wales and Northern Ireland as well, and is working closely with Scotland. Wherever you are, you need to keep your ear close to the ground, as a comprehensive shakeup of quality assurance is on its way.