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
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
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
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.
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?