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Weekend Reading: TEF Results week – honestly, I quite enjoyed it!

  • 30 September 2023
  • By Rosie Scott-Ward

Professionally, I have had the privilege to ‘grow up’ in a unique environment – a relatively small and specialist college offering Higher Education (HE), which five years ago gained University Title, having achieved Taught Degree Awarding Powers in 2017.  Over the 25+ years, I have seen a few higher education policies, quality assurance and enhancement sector requirements come and go.  We (at Hartpury University) enjoyed success in the Quality Assurance Agency Higher Education Review, using it as an opportunity to showcase what we did best, alongside demonstrating our ability to fundamentally meet sector benchmarks.  TEF (2017) went really well, achieving Gold after successfully demonstrating our ability to provide an outstanding student experience (despite the data potentially not).  So we entered TEF 2023 with mixed emotions – a rare opportunity in today’s regulatory environment to showcase our very best, balanced with the fear of not! 

For us, one of the hardest parts of TEF was the consultation phase.  At the time, Hartpury was still establishing itself as a university while trying to engage in an evolving higher education regulatory landscape.  While the latter was challenging for the whole sector, I think that two of us at Hartpury were potentially working our way through between 15 and 20 industry consultations, including the TEF.  The reality of being a small institution (just over 2,000 students at that time), was that the consultations fell on the same senior staff who were also keeping the ship afloat while coming out of the stormy waters of Covid-19, rising costs and flat-lining income. Realistically, we had to pick and choose our battles, while utilising the invaluable support of organisations like GuildHE. It was not ideal, and not easy. 

We had to make a tough choice – we took the decision not to work on a submission using the draft TEF guidance which was being consulted on.  We simply didn’t have the capacity to work a submission up, only to then discover significant changes.  And we really didn’t have any time to work on data modelling, from our less than 1 full-time equivalent ‘data’ team.  I remember sitting in some briefings hearing from other TEF leads about large teams of people mocking up submissions, working with double-figure data teams and what a struggle it was, and feeling a range of emotions!

At Hartpury we emerged from Covid with a really positive relationship with our Student Union.  We had worked closely through many tough decisions regarding teaching, assessment, students on campus, off campus and everything in between.  The relationship had been a constructive one, and I was confident they would value the opportunity to engage in the TEF assessment.  The big tension came down to their size and, to a small extent, our maturity as a University.  Our SU consisted of a small team – a fractional term-time permanent lead and four part-time student officers, who were all full-time undergraduate students mainly in their first or second year of study. It was a big ask for them to meet the Office of Students’ expectations around a student submission, alongside the day-to-day pressures of their SU role and academic studies, with a growing cost-of-living challenge.  While they absolutely did us proud, I (and they) are glad it’s not every year, and I hope by the next one the SU will be more developed and resilient for such a big ask.

The week of provisional findings was an interesting one – the National Student Survey (NSS) was released the same week, leading into A-level results (and clearing) alongside balancing a number of staff being on leave, and maybe uniquely to me and Hartpury, organising a high-risk Equine International Horse Trials.  We went into the week not sure if it would be the best or the worst… and thankfully, it turned out pretty well.  NSS was a success, clearing was busy, all horses came home safely and TEF Triple Gold.  A pretty good week in the office!

I suspect the golden outcome colours my reflections positively – it was undoubtedly a tough timeline, data a real challenge, but the submission and the findings do feel like Hartpury and all that we do.  My perception is the panel understood who we are and what we do.  The good practice represents us (and therefore the sector) well, and the staff see where they were, and are, part of it. 

Looking ahead, I have questions. Will we get sight of TEF-specific data regularly? Will it change a lot for the next round? What will happen to the burden of evidencing educational gain and the disproportionate impact on smaller organisations? But right here, right now – we take a moment to recognise our results and the students and staff who worked so hard to achieve it, and then keep doing our best for our students, our staff and our industries.  Thank you to the TEF panel members and supporting teams who made it happen on the ground – I suspect an epic undertaking.  Going forward, let us innovate, try new things, make the odd mistake, but fundamentally support our students to make (educational) gains beyond those simply represented in numbers.  

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