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Don’t write off the Teaching Excellence Framework – just make it better by John Vinney

  • 13 January 2016

Our latest guest blog comes from Professor John Vinney, Vice-Chancellor of Bournemouth University, in the form of a constructive response to the TEF proposals.

With the green paper response deadline looming, most readers will have settled their responses and, according to recent press reports, many believe that the proposals are bad news – especially the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

I believe it is too soon to write off the TEF. There is clearly work to do on the detailed implementation (and another consultation to follow), and there are some major traps to avoid. But if we engage constructively with the debate and the detail, a Teaching Excellence Framework could add value for institutions as well as the intended beneficiaries – students, employers and the taxpayer.

Students and employers are already able to access large amounts of quantitative data, although this information is not consistent or easy to use. Our experience shows that undergraduate students select their university based on a range of mostly qualitative factors, ignoring the existing quantitative data. Typically fewer than a third of Bournemouth University’s open day visitors say they know of the Unistats tool or have used it. Our  web analytics for the year ending 31 August 2015 show just 1.7% of those viewing an undergraduate course viewed the ‘Course Information Stats’ page, which supports the KIS widget with supplementary data.

So we believe the TEF will be most beneficial to students if it provides robust and consistent qualitative data.

As others have commented, there are risks in using proxy data for things that are hard to measure. As it was put to me recently, there is no point measuring the number of potholes on a road surface by asking bus passengers if they enjoyed their journey. Apart from missing the point, on the basis that what gets measured gets done, proxies will encourage institutions to do things that affect the proxy, rather than focussing on the right areas.

Some areas are covered by existing processes, and the TEF should use these, and avoid the temptation to duplicate or create parallel systems, for example reporting on:

  1. accreditation by the Higher Education Academy’s UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF);
  2. HEA qualifications to measure teaching inputs;
  3. data from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) where it is relevant to teaching and learning; and
  4. Quality Assurance Agency outcomes.

Most importantly, the TEF should recognise the role of professional bodies in accrediting courses, and should allow this extremely rigorous and thorough process to replace alternative measures or assessments.

The TEF should also use the same terminology and processes as the REF, to simplify the process within institutions, and to make the outputs more accessible to students and employers. Why should applicants and employers have to work out two completely separate regimes in order to assess an institution?

BU’s vision and strategy is based on the integration of excellent teaching with research and professional practice. We believe that staff need to be actively engaged in all three of these activities, and I am particularly concerned that the introduction of the TEF could further divide teaching and research in institutions. We welcome the reference to this in the HEPI response to the green paper. We would like to see a TEF that incentivises greater links between research and teaching, as part of an approach that provides support for innovative teaching practices and engaging and flexible learning opportunities.

In 2013, Bournemouth University had a higher proportion of graduates with work experience (90%) than any other university in the UK (according to, July 2013) and, in the same year, 76% of the University’s programmes were developed to meet the requirements of a range of professional bodies. Our view is coloured, of course, by our focus at BU on what are sometimes dismissively called ‘vocational’ courses. Our approach to engagement with professional practice will not work for all courses at all institutions, but it doesn’t need to because we don’t think that there should only be one approach in the TEF.

Engaging with students in innovative ways is also part of the key to widening participation and supporting better outcomes for all students. I believe employability is about more than just knowledge and direct experience of work. Employers value a wide range of other skills and experience that are developed by participating in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. The TEF should be constructed in a way that encourages all of this, and not restricted to a narrow set of metrics.

Rather than focussing on creating high-level institutional scores, we believe the TEF should adopt an approach similar to the REF.  Using case studies will enable institutions to provide qualitative, course specific data. We support the conclusion of the HEFCE Metric Tide report that quantitative indicators should not replace narrative impact case studies in the REF, and I believe that the same logic applies to the TEF.

This would not provide a league table of institutions, sorted into levels, and would not make it easy to administer different fee regimes, but we don’t support those objectives. I believe that this structure would meet the green paper’s objectives to improve focus on teaching excellence – by which I mean teaching excellence as part of an excellent and engaging learning environment – and providing useful and accessible information that enables students and employers to make the right choices.

We believe, that despite the burden of the REF, it has added value to Bournemouth University by driving a focus on quality and impact on research, and we also believe that many of the processes that it requires are necessary in institutions. If the REF were abolished, we would still want to do many of the things that we do to support it now. I believe that we will look back at the TEF and find it has been valuable in the same way. It is worth engaging constructively in the debate, and having written our response to the green paper, we welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters further in the technical consultation that is to follow.

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