England’s Office for Students has, this morning, published the latest Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results for higher education institutions. Here, the HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, provides some very early thoughts on their importance.
- Today’s results have been a long-time coming. The idea of some sort of Teaching Excellence Framework was initially announced in the 2015 Conservative manifesto and fairly swift action was taken afterwards, with the first results appearing in 2017. The previous set of results before today’s came out in 2019 and, in 2021, institutions were told not to use their existing ratings as they did not provide up-to-date information. This meant it felt like the whole exercise was on pause . Now, around a decade on from when the idea of a TEF was first mooted inside Whitehall (four Prime Ministers and seven University Ministers on), we finally have the new TEF results.
- The goal was always to shake the system up a bit. In bald terms, the original purpose of the TEF was to try and show that history, hierarchy and prestige are not always good reflections of teaching or educational quality. This has been achieved, both originally and now. The first specific bit of information trumpeted in the Office for Students’ press release on the new results is the number of less prestigious institutions that have achieved a Gold award: ‘ten are for low entry tariff providers’. But, yes, Oxford and Cambridge do both get triple Gold. Their relative level of resources make any other result unthinkable but this sort of fact may also mean the degree to which TEF can ever truly be a system-breaker could always be limited.
- What has not worked so well, to date, is changing applicant behaviour. Metrics and badges like those offered by the TEF often exist to change behaviour. If people can see that teaching quality does not correlate with prestige, then it could shake up who goes where and the TEF could act as a properly competitive force. There is little evidence of this happening to date; indeed, in 2019 half of all applicants did not know what the TEF was. It doesn’t seem to be discussed all that much in schools, for example. But none of this will stop institutions today from boasting about their ‘double’ or ‘triple’ Gold awards. And even if the TEF doesn’t change the dial on applicants’ behaviour, if it contributes to a process of continuous improvement inside institutions, it will be valuable – so long as the extra bureaucracy is worth it.
- It is not straightforward to compare results. I dimly recall being asked on local TV, around the time the first results came out, whether a newish university that had a higher rating than a neighbouring older university with a lower rating was ‘better’. This is a difficult question to answer because the inputs to the TEF are ‘benchmarked’ – that is, in the OfS’s words, ‘to show how well the provider performs for its particular mix of students and courses’. This means the results are fairer than they otherwise would be, but also that you need to be careful when comparing one institution’s results against another.
- There is a new ratings category. The original TEF was put together around the time of the 2016 Olympics and the idea of Gold, Silver and Bronze categories are thought to have stemmed from there. However, the all-must-have-prizes element of giving everyone a shiny award was unpopular among those who wanted to be tougher on the higher education sector. So perhaps the most important shift today is the introduction of a new Ofsted-style ‘requires improvement’ category. However, in one important sense this is also the least interesting bit of today’s news because, unsurprisingly, the names of every single provider at risk of securing this overall rating are not in the public domain yet. This is because you can request a review of your result before publication (whether you are in the ‘requires improvement’ category or another one): 53 results ‘are still being considered by the TEF panel’.
- The process is different – but not as different as it might have been. There are some substantial changes from before, particularly in the level of student engagement with the process – thanks in large part to the work of Shirley Pearce. This is to be welcomed: in the early days of the TEF, people often (unfairly) compared a brand new rating system with the much older and regularly honed Research Excellence Framework. It wasn’t a fair comparison then and it is not a fair comparison now, but it is fairer than it once was. However, the new results are not as radically different as they might have been; there was for a long time a row about whether or not the TEF should be conducted at a subject level, for example, which would provide more granular information. That has not happened.
- The real importance of the TEF may not have been felt yet. The biggest bind facing universities currently is a financial one mixed with a political one: politicians do not want to vote for higher fee caps. The Teaching Excellence Framework might just offer something of a route out of this. Before the summer break, the former Minister for Universities Jo Johnson proposed to his fellow peers a fee increase in line with inflation for institutions that do well in the Teaching Excellence Framework, and – intriguingly – it received some support from both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokespeople.