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What next for the Teaching Excellence Framework?

3 February 2017
William Hammonds

William Hammonds

Policy Manager
Universities UK

What next for the Teaching Excellence​​ Framework?

Applications for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – the system being created by government to measure the quality of teaching in universities – closed on Thursday 26 January and there was strong participation from the sector. In total 134 higher education institutions are participating, plus 94 FE colleges and 6 alternative providers, with a further 65 FE and alternative providers opting in for provisional awards on the basis of having a shorter data history. Although participation among English universities was nearly 100%, some of the decisions not to participate highlight the complexity of developing a single assessment system that can fairly represent the full diversity of the UK sector.

The Open University's decision not to participate reflects its unique status as a distance part-time provider that is open to all regardless of qualifications. In Scotland the TEF is an additional burden on top of the Enhancement Led Institutional Review process, a different model of improving the experience for students. TEF's financial incentives also play a part: the OU charge nowhere near the maximum £9000 undergraduate fee and there was no link to funding for Scottish institutions.

As we move into the assessment phase scrutiny of the assessment framework and how it deals with the diversity of sector will increase given the potential impact on reputations. There will be many questions facing the panel over the next couple of months as they formulate their judgement. Some of these include:

  • Balancing quantitative metrics and the provider submission: At the core of the TEF is an assessment of an institution's performance in areas of student satisfaction, continuation through university and labour market destinations, plus an institution submission. Although formally it is a 50/50 split, the guidance makes clear that the starting point for judgements is the core metrics – with any negative flags discounting the chance of a gold and two negatives starting an institution in bronze. Where and how submissions shift institutions up (or down a grade) will be an important question for the panel.
  • Balancing contextual benchmarks and absolute scores: the core metrics use benchmarks – adapted from the UK Performance Indicators – that establish an institution's 'expected' score based on features such as student intake and subject mix. It has been noted by high tariff institutions that at high absolute scores it can be hard to beat a benchmark – outcomes for medics, for example. Equally, lower tariff institutions need contextual benchmarking to ensure they are not penalised for recruiting students from low participation backgrounds.
  • Interpreting geographical factors: universities in London are interested in how POLAR data – which identifies low participation neighbourhoods – is interpreted. In places such as London, where population density, inequality and the pace of social change can be extremely high, this data can be a less reliable guide. Similarly, how contextual data on regional economic and employment patterns will be interpreted against the geographical recruitment and destination patterns of different institutions will also be an important factor.
  • Comparing provider submissions: how these will be interpreted will be of great interest and is perhaps the biggest unknown. While there has been guidance, the aim of this has been to avoid being prescriptive and some of the factors set out above are yet to be settled. This gives more latitude to providers to present their own story but it can also make it harder to compare like with like. There may be diverse types of evidence presented as part of submissions and potentially different presentation 'strategies' between defending core metrics and presenting the university's own story.

These challenges are all inherent in the design of a comparative assessment framework of something as complex as teaching and learning across a diverse sector. Clearly the core metrics cover important areas in their own right but can only be interpreted as vague proxies for teaching excellence. Given this, it has always been essential that there is scope for institutions to present their own evidence of their teaching and learning excellence and impact.

However, the more the assessment framework takes into account diversity and nuance, the more scrutiny there will be of how the panel approaches these trade-offs and interpretations. This is the challenge facing the panel and the capable hands of its Chair, Professor Chris Husbands, when formulating judgements. It will also be important that the lessons learned exercise is a comprehensive and robust evaluation of the process, something UUK has been asking for from the beginning.

Just as important is that the nuances and challenges inherent in TEF judgements, including what judgements do and don't cover, are clearly articulated to the intended beneficiaries of this process – prospective students in the UK, as well as their counterparts overseas. This requires more work between now and May when we will get the results.

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