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Reviewing the new TEF results, by Dame Shirley Pearce, author of the Independent Review of the TEF

  • 29 September 2023
  • By Dame Shirley Pearce DBE
  • This blog on yesterday’s new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results has been kindly written for HEPI by Dame Shirley Pearce DBE.
  • This is the third in a series of HEPI blogs on the TEF results. The previous two blogs can be read here and here.
  • Join us at HEPI’s party conference fringe events – see here for more details.

It’s been a long time, August 2019, since I submitted the Independent Review of TEF to the Secretary of State for Education and a lot of water has flown under Westminster, and other bridges, since that time.

The review identified how important TEF had been in drawing attention to the quality of the learning that our students experience. I am sure that that all providers care about the learning experience of their students, but we heard strong messages that in many institutions there is a tension with other parts of the provider’s mission which affects allocation of resources. In research-intensive universities, where there is competition with research, and in Further Education, where higher education provision is a small part of the overall programme of delivery, TEF was considered to have had significant value in keeping the educational needs of students at the forefront of decision making. So, it’s great that it has not died the death that some thought it might. 

Keeping the learning needs of our students in focus is perhaps even more important in the resource constrained climate in which we now operate and where students are under significant financial and emotional pressures after the destructive experiences of the COVID pandemic.

The results which were published yesterday provide a rich analysis of the excellence across all parts of UK higher education provision. Gold ratings in all parts of the sector demonstrate the strength and breadth of UK higher education. I am not going to comment on the specific patterns of results. I am confident that throughout the exercise the expert panels will have shown the same care and attention to detail that I observed in the previous exercise. There was never any question in the Independent Review about the commitment and quality of the expert panel’s performance.

But we did make a series of significant recommendations many of which have informed this new TEF.

 These include:

  • a focus on improvement and enhancement of provision, which should intensify as providers are able to access other institutions’ submissions and compare notes;
  • an opportunity for students to provide their views in the student submission. It will be important to understand the reasons why some providers did not have a student submission and look to ways of encouraging and supporting students in those providers where there has not been a student submission;
  • an opportunity for institutions to describe the specific learning environment and distinctive ‘educational gains’ that a student should experience (and Emily Polinger’s HEPI blog yesterday is of great interest here);
  • a balance of qualitative and quantitative evidence, assessed and mediated by an expert panel;
  • improvements in the management and statistical analysis of quantitative data; and
  • recognition that determining excellence requires consideration of both absolute and relative scores on the metrics.

I think the OfS should be congratulated on turning the recommendations in these areas into a working process for all parts of our diverse higher education provision. 

But the Government and the OfS did not accept all the recommendations of the review and I have one significant concern about the new process. This relates to the names of the ratings and in particular the implications of the ‘requires improvement’ category. 

The Independent Review proposed removing the ‘medals’ titles of each ranking ie Gold, Silver and Bronze – and replacing them with descriptors that had meaning and relevance to the judgments. 

We proposed:

‘Meets UK quality requirements; Commended, Highly commended and Outstanding’.

This recommendation was not accepted. They stuck with the medals and added ‘requires improvement’. It is this ‘requires improvement’ (RI) naming of the lowest ranking which I think is problematic. 

TEF is intended to be a measure of excellence. It is meant to identify and celebrate levels of excellence above the baseline requirements.

So what does the rating ‘requires improvement’ really mean? How can excellence above baseline requirements for registration be ‘required’? And if improvement is required, what is to be the process for delivering change and determining that it has been delivered? 

If an institution gains an overall rating of ‘requires improvement’, does this mean it is not meeting baseline regulatory conditions? If so, what are the implications of this messaging for students? In the past, if the expert panel had serious concerns about performance which threatened registration conditions, the Chair of the TEF had the ability to alert the OfS and presumably this is still the case.

I fear that the award of a ‘requires improvement’ rating at institutional level will lead to confusion and aggravation as well as much unnecessary appeal time and effort with resource implications on all sides. To date in this new TEF, we have not yet seen the ‘requires improvement’ rating delivered at an institutional level and it will be interesting to see what emerges as the 53 pending cases get resolved. 

This is just one part of what is otherwise a very exciting step forward in the assessment and articulation of the excellence across diverse parts of UK higher education. It does not detract from the overall success of seeing a new stronger TEF process. It is genuinely exciting to see the new results and I very much hope that the next stages of publishing the submissions lead to real sharing of best practice both within and between universities.

My thanks again go to the members of the Independent Review Advisory Group who gave their time and expertise so willingly and generously. I hope they will see these results appearing today as just reward for their efforts. 

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