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The challenge of making TEF-lite work

  • 29 July 2015

The University Alliance hosted a stimulating event to discuss the threats and opportunities of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) earlier today. Not only were there platform speeches from senior people from HEFCE, BIS, Coventry University and the University of South Wales, there was even an interview with a real live student (often notable by their absence from the list of speakers at such events), which was conducted by Maddalaine Ansell, the University Alliance’s newish Chief Executive.

Sadly, the half-day session did not solve the problem of how to devise a TEF that is effective, fair, non-bureaucratic, responsive, cheap and all the other things it needs to be. But then it was never going to do that. It is a challenge that will take years rather than hours to resolve.

Most people who have addressed themselves to the problem of devising the TEF seem to be coalescing around the idea that there will need to be a complex basket of measurements, as with the Office for National Statistics’s way of measuring price inflation (only ten times more complicated). It is likely to encompass teaching quality, learning gain and employment outcomes – and perhaps a whole lot more besides. Exactly what the measures should be and how they should be balanced against one another is deeply contentious. For example, should they include the things students say they care about, like contact hours? It is a question on which reasonable people can differ sharply.

One particularly pressing problem is that there needs to be a TEF-lite in place in the next few months so that the powers-that-be can decide which institutions are allowed to charge students more than £9,000 in 2017/18, as announced in George Osborne’s Summer Budget. (I shall assume that inflation is positive, rather than negative as it has been recently, or else universities will be fighting to perform well in a TEF that could lower their fee cap…)

There is a longer timelag in new higher education policies than is widely recognised. The time pressure comes from the fact that applicants for the 2017/18 academic year will be going on open days in less than a year’s time. Fee levels for 2017 need to be resolved by then so that they know how much they will be charged at university A compared to university B (plus the Student Loans Company clockwork computers can take months to recalibrate).

It might have been smoother to have waited but there are certainly arguments for trialling a top-level and light-touch TEF from which people will learn before the fully-blown model takes flight. There are also arguments for – as well as against – attaching strings to any fee rise. Either way, it is concentrating minds and the Government have firmly committed themselves to doing it, so opposition is likely to fail.

But there are risks of a TEF-lite too. First, you’ve got to devise a mechanism quickly that doesn’t simply reward the Oxbridge tutorial system (which clearly delivers good teaching and, so they claim, is currently underfunded) but which is also nuanced enough to work out where a newer ‘recruiting’ university is delivering excellent teaching that may be masked in meagre wage returns of former students working in public-service roles. And where do atypical institutions that clearly deliver good teaching sit in it all – such as the Open University? Oh, and the better alternative providers? Specialist institutions? HE in FE? The list goes on… As was discussed at the event today, a quick-and-dirty TEF designed to enable some universities to raise their fees is also likely to preclude different results for different departments within a university: a university will need to pass for fail in its entirety. And it means a cliff edge too – we’re talking the chasm between a 2:1 and a 2:2 rather than a sophisticated grade point average.

Secondly, you’ve got to avoid an all-must-have-prizes scenario. When David Blunkett introduced performance-related pay for teachers at the turn of the century, most teachers applied and most passed. A nuanced and potentially innovative policy became an automatic tick-box exercise on implementation. If that were to happen with TEF-lite, it would disrupt the subsequent fully-blown model.

One of the reasons all this matters is that, if we as a nation get it wrong, then the whole concept of incentivising good teaching in higher education could be disrupted beyond English / UK shores. The Research Excellence Framework, like it or loathe it, has been influential across the world. The Teaching Excellence Framework could be too, but it must become a positive model to follow rather than an example of policy failure.

Now that’s something to ponder on the beach in August…

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