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More bureaucracy please?

  • 29 June 2016

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Professor Graham Galbraith, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth. It is a timely reminder that higher education reform is likely to continue, despite the upheavals in the wider political landscape, and recommends some specific changes to the new Teaching Excellence Framework to reduce bureaucracy.

Like businesses, universities often complain about the bureaucracy imposed upon them. Soon there will be an extra layer: the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF). The TEF will have metrics, benchmarks, contextual information and up to 15 pages of ‘provider submission’. From 2019/20 there is also expected to be a discipline-level TEF, adding at least a further two or three pages submission per discipline.

While the sector should welcome the TEF – and the opportunity it offers to demonstrate our high-quality teaching – its bureaucratic implications should give pause for thought. Fortunately, through the ongoing TEF consultation, the sector can express its views. But, worryingly, many seem to be arguing for ‘more bureaucracy please’.

I don’t know why this is – perhaps some of us have lost sight of the fact that bureaucracy must serve a purpose; it is not an end in itself. But I do know that a bureaucratic TEF risks being expensive and time-consuming – and asking for one may well undermine our voice to government. The sector can hardly complain about government impositions if, when consulted, we freely ask for more…

It would be wrong to claim that the issues around the TEF are simple. An institution’s TEF rating will contribute to its financial health and reputation, so we need to get it right. But there are more or less bureaucratic ways of doing this and, in my view, we should opt for the latter.

At this stage it is unclear, and seems undecided, how TEF Assessors and the Panel will process the information they are given. One option would be for them to give equal standing to the metrics, contextual information, and provider submission. Only after looking at all the information would ratings – meets expectations, excellent, or outstanding – be decided.

If this approach is adopted, one can see why institutions want a longer provider submission. Writing more might move that ‘meets expectations’ rating floating in the minds of the TEF Panel to ‘excellent’. And with this will come more money and a better reputation. But only might. Many universities will go through whole forests to no effect.

I would recommend that Assessors and Panel should make a provisional rating on the basis of the benchmarked metrics and contextual information alone. Only where a rating is borderline should the provider submission be made available to them. I would also recommend removing commendations from the TEF.

These suggestions would reduce the workload of the Assessors and Panel. As institutions will be able to see their metrics before they submit, these suggestions will also give institutions a better idea of the issues on which they need to focus in their provider submission. This should make submissions shorter.

Those institutions that learn they are not borderline will realise that their submission serves no purpose. The third element of my proposal, then, is that provider submissions are made only in borderline cases.

This vision – the priority of metrics and contextualized information, no commendations, and provider submissions in borderline cases only – would streamline the TEF considerably. Many in the sector will think I am wrong – and perhaps I am. There are legitimate worries about the accuracy and meaningfulness of some of the proposed TEF metrics and detailed provider submissions can paint a more nuanced picture.

But if the worry is the comprehensiveness of the metrics we should lobby government to include a more comprehensive set of metrics – not to give us a licence to submit endless pieces of paper.

The TEF is here to stay (at least for now). Over time it will change and, if the evolution of what we now call the REF is any guide, it will only become more resource-intensive and time-consuming. It behoves the sector to remember this before it weighs down its pockets from the very beginning by asking for ‘more work please’.

1 comment

  1. Catherine Harper says:

    Very much in agreement with this proposal – metrics prioritised and finessed, commendations removed, borderline providers only to make further submissions. Would give some room for research and practice in advanced pedagogy and teaching excellence, which is – after all – what this is all about !

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