This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor John Vinney, the Vice-Chancellor of Bournemouth University.
The lack of attention given to teaching by universities, in contrast to research, is one of the reasons for the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). While most people working in the sector support a focus on teaching, learning environment and student outcomes, many fear the TEF could drive a wedge between research and education. It is said the metrics-based approach could drive out innovation in teaching and discourage undergraduate involvement in research or links within programmes to the research activity of academics. A focus on teaching metrics could simultaneously push some academics to focus solely on research and lead to an increase in teaching-only staff.
These concerns have been officially acknowledged. Both the higher education white paper and the draft TEF specification encouraged universities to demonstrate the links between teaching and research in their TEF submissions. This is now specifically included in the TEF criteria, but the proposed commendation for excellence in research-led teaching has been put on hold. This lays down a challenge to universities to find ways to demonstrate the impact of these links. But it does not address the wider concern about the divide between teaching and research. Those universities that prioritise research-informed teaching will be able to highlight it, but universities can still choose to encourage specialisation.
The white paper also confirmed that teaching and research should ‘remain coherent and co-ordinated at the national as well as the institutional level’ by ensuring that Lord Stern’s review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) also considered these links. This was positive, though it was not included in the original terms of reference for the Stern review and, in the end, the results were a little disappointing. The Stern review recommends that impact assessment for the REF should include the impact on teaching, which is welcome. More generally, the review recommends that the government ensures no increased administrative burden on institutions from interactions between the TEF and the REF and that they ‘together strengthen the vital relationship between teaching and research in higher education institutions’. The report notes that ‘links between teaching and research are key to the quality of the learning and research environment at the institutional level’.
Similar positive but vague statements are made in the factsheet issued by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently, describing how the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation will work together once the Higher Education and Research Bill is passed. This paper mostly talks about information sharing but adds: ‘We have committed to UKRI and OfS working together to support the interface between teaching and research, including by ensuring that TEF and REF are mutually reinforcing.’
We await the publication of the planned consultation on the implementation of REF2021, but it unless this goes much further than the Stern review itself, it appears that the changes will not make a major difference to the co-ordination and coherence of research and teaching.
In fact, there is concern (and some anecdotal evidence) that the other recommendations in the Stern review, notably the requirement to include all ‘research-active’ staff in the REF, might have the opposite effect and encourage universities to further separate teaching and research contracts for staff, and employ more teaching only-staff who will not impact their REF ratings. (This could be happening already according to one report.) The TEF encourages universities to redress the balance between research and teaching by demonstrating their internal processes reward high-quality teaching but they can do that while having staff who only teach.
At Bournemouth University, we believe the best outcomes for students and staff are delivered by combining a focus on professional practice, relevant to our subject areas and to our perspective on employability, with high-quality research and excellent education. We expect our staff to have teaching qualifications and PhDs, and we expect them to be actively engaged in research. We have adopted internal models that support this approach and we are working towards objectives for all of these measures. Of course, there are some exceptions, and we are particularly proud of the role that practising professionals have in delivering our programmes. But we have no intention of ‘gaming’ the TEF or the REF by abandoning our strategic vision of education informed by research and practice or relying on teaching-only staff.
We believe there are other ways to support the links between research and teaching in the new structures as they are developed. One example, that we called for in our green paper response nearly a year ago, is to use the REF Units of Assessment for the subject-level TEF (to be trialled in year 3). This will reduce bureaucracy and administration and provide a coherent structure for universities while facilitating links between research and teaching. TEF ratings of Units of Assessment will encourage the sector to consider the pedagogical impact of the research they are doing in those units. There will be a logical connection between the two. And, as I argued in a previous HEPI blog, using common terminology and structures for TEF and REF will make it easier for employers and students, who are meant to be the beneficiaries of all this extra information.
The second change is to require universities to return all academic staff in their REF returns, removing the ‘research-active’ qualification. Such a team-based approach will allow flexibility while discouraging a proliferation of teaching-only staff.
These simple changes will not dramatically change either the REF or the TEF, and they will not inhibit providers who want to focus on teaching – but they will make a real and practical contribution to delivering the commitments in the white paper of supporting and facilitating the links between teaching and research. That is, after all, what differentiates a university education and it would help ensure a dynamic and inspirational learning environment for our students and our staff.