The TEF – what you need to know

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What is it?

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a new benchmark in teaching for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Developed by the Department for Education, it is designed to measure organisations in terms of their teaching excellence, learning culture and student destinations. The level of award (bronze, silver or gold) is based on metric data, namely the National Student Survey, drop out statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and outcome related information from the ‘destination of leavers’ survey. This data is accompanied by a written statement.

It is focused on undergraduate teaching only and was launched in 2016 as a trial. Results were released in June 2017, and much debate surrounds the efficacy and value of the scheme. Although results are differentiated (taking typical cohort into account), there were some surprises, some disgruntled participants and a predictable media rumpus. 

What is its purpose?

In a competitive economic climate, the TEF seeks to equip students and potential students with the data required to make an informed choice about which HEI/s they apply to. Many universities have a research focus; the TEF seeks to encourage them to make teaching excellence their focus too. The UK has a very well-regarded higher education industry; the TEF aims to preserve this.

Whilst participation is not compulsory, it has indicated those that do take part will be allowed to increase their fees in line with inflation (in England, it has no impact on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). Most organisations are unlikely to ignore this economic benefit.

Is it a good or a bad thing?

It would be fair to say that opinions are divided on the potential benefit to both students and HEIs. Optimists claim it could create a system where all students can access teaching of a high standard, encourages organisations to continually strive for a better standard of education, whilst protecting the industry and its reputation. Further benefits include the lessening of institutional snobbery and the hierarchy that exists in our higher education system.

Criticisms centre around the methodologies used to measure each HEI. Examining outcomes is not the same as examining the teaching itself. The current process is too simplistic, providing students with just three broad categories to choose from. Grading HEIs as bronze, silver or gold could cause further division in the sector, rather than unity.

What should I be doing about it?

As it is still in a trial phase, we don’t know the consequences, intended or otherwise, of the TEF. Those who will be active players in the process are the most senior managers, chancellors and vice-chancellors in a university setting. As a lecturer it’s unlikely to have any procedural bearing on your role, for the time being. That said, it’s probable that the TEF is here to stay, so listen to what your institution is saying about it. Be transparent; if your organisation achieved a bronze status, be willing to enter debate with students, colleagues and the wider sector as to what it means, and what can or should be done about it (a bronze award indicates your organisation has met the required standard!). As frontline university staff, you are best placed to inform the process, so make your views heard.

Of course the metrics that the award are part-based on land firmly on the shoulders of the wider university workforce; the teachers, the support staff. Would an incentivised standard motivate you to do more for your students? It is often the aspects of education that are not easily quantifiable that inspire, inform and contribute to student success. Pay as much heed to those as you do to the broader demands of the industry.

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