Subject-level TEF – a done deal or the start of a consultation?

Stephanie Harris

Head of International Engagement (Non-EU)
Universities UK International

​Today saw a lot of media coverage and fanfare around a new 'degree course ranking' system. In reality, this was simply the launch of a long-awaited consultation on how to implement a subject-level version of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). ​

The first results of the wider TEF were published last year, with universities in England – and some in Wales and Scotland – rated gold, silver or bronze based on the quality of their teaching.​

The new consultation – finally giving the whole sector its chance to comment on how subject-level ratings could work – contains some small tweaks to the potential framework originally announced in July. Along with seeking opinions on what assessment model to implement, tweaks being consulted on include: whether all provider-level metrics are appropriate at subject-level; how the distribution of ratings should be allowed to vary between subjects; and how to best deal with non-reportable metrics and interdisciplinary provision. ​

One of the most welcome changes in tack in the document is genuine consultation on whether a teaching intensity measure would be valuable. There is genuine concern about whether such a measure can realistically capture all forms of teaching, the key role that independent study plays in higher education and the numerous unintended consequences it could create.

The UK government has long expressed the desire to develop a teaching intensity measure as it believes that students’ perception of their studies is influenced by the number of contact hours their course offers. The evidence cited for this is the HEPI/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey which finds a link between student satisfaction and contact hours. Others, though, including the influential 2010 report “Dimensions of quality”, find that contact hours have nothing to do with teaching excellence. It is what happens in those hours in the classroom that matters, not the quantity of them.


The debate about teaching intensity, it appears, gets to the heart of the debate surrounding the TEF itself:

  • what is the TEF aiming to measure and why?
  • and is it helping or hindering improvement in actual teaching in universities?


The media messaging surrounding the consultation launch – and the consultation itself – make subject-level TEF sound like a done deal. And that all that’s left to debate is how it’s done. This is a shame and even a little presumptuous. The Higher Education Research Act states that there must be an independent review of the TEF in 2018–19 which will consider, among others, the key questions outlined above.

Initial feedback from the sector suggests that the TEF isn’t measuring what it originally set out to measure, probably isn’t delivering against stated aims, but is influencing institutional culture surrounding teaching and learning, though not always in a positive way.

Another concern is the resource burden it places on universities. Universities UK estimated that entering Year 2 of the TEF cost the 134 universities who participated £4 million. Whichever model of subject-level assessment is adopted, this burden will be increased.

Before subject-level TEF is accepted as a given, these issues need to be tackled head on. The consultation highlights that the Department for Education has undertaken some student research on the impact and use of the TEF. The results of this research must be central to the future development of the exercise. There are a number of questions still to be answered. Do students know what the TEF is? Are they using it to make decisions? And would subject-level assessment be more useful to them?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then we need to reconsider what the TEF is measuring and why it is measuring it. If the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’, then, and only then, should we turn our attention to how to introduce subject-level TEF that makes a positive contribution to student decision making, choice and actual teaching across the sector in a proportionate way.

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andy penaluna
andy penaluna says:
12 March 2018 at 17:06

Teaching intensity has a number of dimensions. Staff / student ratio is the obvious one but perhaps less discussed in the impact that too much 'telling' styles of teaching may lead to a lack of autonomous thinking, something we all desire in students. The dependency on 'expert lecturers' telling students 'exactly what to do' conspires against this of course, and become a dependency model. Being quiet is sometimes the best way to teach - when the students are actually thinking. Will these factors be taken into account?