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TEF scores gold overall, but categories require improvement

  • 29 September 2023
  • By Susanna Kalitowski

University Alliance has long been something of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) superfan. For years it made no sense for our higher education system to have a REF to measure research quality but no TEF to assess excellence in teaching. The vast majority of students who experience higher education do so as undergraduates on a taught course. Teaching quality is therefore of the utmost importance to the reputation of the sector.

The introduction of the TEF in 2017 therefore provided an important rebalancing of the system. Six years on, the TEF may not yet enjoy the clout of the REF, but it has reportedly had a noticeable impact on the value the sector places on teaching and learning, and the resources that are directed towards these. Whilst the TEF itself is a huge amount of work, it does not feel like a waste of time.

One of the most striking things about this year’s TEF results is that they effectively call into question the link between tariff and quality that is such an ingrained feature of the higher education narrative in England – to the extent that progression to high tariff universities is even used as a performance measure for schools. Whilst many high-tariff institutions performed well in this year’s TEF, so did similar proportions of medium and low-tariff institutions. As the CEO of the Office for Students, Susan Lapworth put it, the results show that ‘excellence is found in a diverse range of institutions.’ It is invaluable to have a rigorous and independent assessment process to back this up.

A few years ago, the future of the TEF was not so certain. Repeated changes to the methodology and large gaps between exercises have meant that it is still not well understood by students or the public. It has therefore been something of a relief to see TEF not only endure but improve over time. In UA’s view, TEF 2023 – belatedly influenced by a sterling independent review – is a significant advancement on the previous iterations.

We particularly welcome the explicit aim of enhancing teaching and learning; the sensible balance between qualitative and quantitative evidence; increased student engagement through the student submission and inclusion of students on the TEF Panel; the retention of benchmarked outcomes data; the removal of LEO data on graduate earnings; and the scope to include information on education gain. These were all recommendations made in UA’s 2019 submission to the Independent Review.

Whilst measuring learning gain is notoriously difficult, it is essential in order to measure the value added by higher education, and to find proxies for quality that are not linked to students’ socioeconomic background. The inclusion in the TEF has prompted rich discussions across the UA membership about how to capture the distance travelled by our students.

There are naturally a few aspects of the new framework with which we are less enamored. Chief among these was the decision to create a fourth ‘requires improvement’ (RI) category, of Ofsted fame, where there is an ‘absence of excellence’ above OfS’ high-quality minimum requirements. We believe this label is a misnomer that has the potential to damage a provider’s reputation unnecessarily in the UK and overseas. We would have preferred the wording recommended by the Independent Review: ‘meets quality requirements’ or alternatively ‘working towards excellence.’

Whatever it is labelled, we also think providers in this fourth category should have the opportunity to apply to make a revised submission to the TEF Panel at the mid-way point (after two years) in which they can demonstrate that their provision is now above the baseline.

The creation of the RI category, combined with the fact that TEF ratings last for four years, means that TEF 2023 is a higher-stakes exercise than in the past. Perhaps that is why we are now seeing a record number of ‘pending’ awards: nearly a quarter of providers (23%) who made a TEF submission are appealing the outcome. The fact that the TEF Panel had less than six months to evaluate 228 submissions raises questions about whether adequate time was given to the exercise.

It remains to be seen whether significant numbers of students and their families will use TEF to make decisions about where to study.  However, even if it does not serve this purpose, it remains a vital mechanism to promote continuous improvement and measure quality in teaching and learning in England.

For those of us who represent medium or lower-tariff institutions, the TEF will continue to be an invaluable means of showing that excellence exists in all parts of the sector. Today, University Alliance releases Let’s Get Technical, a briefing that sets out how important professional and technical universities are to the UK and how the next government can harness their power. This week’s TEF results are a timely reminder of just how powerful our members are.  

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