Why the TEF’s lack of structure could signal a step change for the education sector

The education landscape is changing, with increasing emphasis being placed on Universities enhancing the student learning experience and developing graduate employability. This change has triggered a shift in the mechanisms and measures used by to evaluate University’s performance and guide funding decision.

One such initiative is the National Student Survey (NSS) which aims to understand students University and degree experience, providing them with a voice to express their opinion and influence the ratings of their University. Another is the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), an enduring ‘e-portfolio’ that chronicles students curricular and extra-curricular pursuits and achievements, with the aim of ‘tracking and quantifying’ development and providing a verifiable standard that is respected by both academic institutions and the job market to bridge the ‘post-graduation gulf’.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is the most recent initiative proposed by the government intended to further emphasis this responsibility and focus Universities attention on enhancing the student experience, improving teaching quality and rewarding on the basis of high quality teaching. The purposes of the TEF are numerous and can be explored in more detail here, but there is a consistent theme: Universities are being encouraged and incentivized towards becoming more student-focused and centric.

Although there are many factors contributing to this, the increasing cost of education is a key driver. Students are making a significant financial investment in their future and the expectations of what is entailed in the service they are paying for is rising. A degree alone is not enough to distinguish a graduate in the job market, and therefore, a degree alone does not justify the cost. Students are becoming more informed consumers, having access to relevant information (such as NSS, employability statistics and rankings) to guide their selection. For Universities to be competitive as a service provider – not only within the UK, but in emerging markets – they need to provide a service that provides students with an exceptional experience and equips them with the means to distinguish themselves in the job market.


What is the controversy surrounding the TEF?

According to the ‘Assessing quality in higher education report’, “There is no commonly agreed definition of what constitutes good teaching in higher education. In a diverse higher education environment, we heard that excellent teaching may look very different across different subjects and across different autonomous institutions. In the absence of any agreed definition or recognised measures of teaching quality, the Government is proposing to use measures, or metrics, as proxies for teaching quality. Therefore, the challenge is to identify those metrics which most reliably and accurately measure teaching quality, as opposed to other factors that contribute to the results achieved by students.”

This lack of agreement as to what constitutes best practice is creating uncertainty amongst academics and institutions who are to be assessed and rewarded on its merits. Combined with the absence of measures and metrics to evaluate what qualifies as ‘excellent teaching’, it is natural for the TEF to be greeted with dubiousness and skepticism. Considering that reducing the significance of research may negative impact University rankings, it is natural that there will be criticism and resistance. However, the role of the TEF is not to marginalize the importance of research. Research remains a vitally important aspect of a University’s role to drive progress across disciplines, as well as for society who benefits from these discoveries. Rather, the TEF is designed to provide equal status to both research and teaching and provide balance.


The challenge of measuring and evaluating

Ensuring a consistently high teaching standard is a common objective for students, institutions and government. The TEF must devise measures and metrics that serve as accurate indicators for teaching quality and provide meaningful insights for those stakeholders to evaluate teaching efficacy and how to improve it; a considerable challenge given the lack of a universal definition or standard for ‘teaching excellence’.

Techniques such as data analytics are being developed by JISC and the HEA to provide a data-driven way for institutions to identify student or cohorts with potential attainment or employment issues and help guide the implementation of supportive or corrective measures (such as personal tutoring or use of different formats for content delivery). Over time, the measures and metrics will be made more robust and stakeholders will be more informed to make decisions as to what constitutes best practice and which institutions are delivering.


How is uncertainty a good thing?

The old saying ‘what gets measured gets done’ appears increasingly relevant in this context. The TEF should be considered as an acknowledgement that ‘teaching excellence’ is important to students and intrinsic to the UK maintaining its status at the forefront of quality education. The challenge of measuring and benchmarking against as yet unknown standards should not deter institutions, but rather serve as an invitation to become active participants in the discussion – and inventive in their mindset and approach to ‘teaching excellence’. Setting out distinct parameters of what the TEF encompasses and how it will be measured introduces another strict set of protocols and processes that are resistant to change, stifles creativity and ignores innovation. In this capacity, the TEF has the potential to encourage and empower institutions to become more lightweight and agile and explore teaching approaches and methods that may have been omitted by a more traditional framework.

The TEF has been years in conception and deliberation: the process of deploying it and refining it will take even longer. Creating a standard for teaching excellence is not a matter of drawing a line in the sand, rather it is the beginning of a journey that requires ongoing review, analysis and refinement to remain relevant to the stakeholders it is designed to benefit.

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About the author

Clayton Black

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