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‘Distinctive’ and ‘diverse’: a response to the TEF statement release

  • 6 December 2023
  • By Emily Pollinger and Robert Eaton
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Emily Pollinger, Policy and Programmes Manager (Education) and Dr Robert Eaton, Curriculum and Academic Development Manager, both at the University of Bath. Find them on Twitter/X.

Whilst the (gold) dust may have settled following the announcement of TEF 2023 ratings in late September what might last week’s November release of TEF panel summary statements, alongside provider and student submissions, tell us about the rationale behind the awards? 

In a previous HEPI blog, Emily reflected on the challenges that the new dimension of ‘educational gain’ posed in preparing our TEF submission at the University of Bath. With each provider writing in isolation, this November release is the first opportunity to see the variety of approaches to educational gain, and how these approaches have been assessed by the TEF panel. We reviewed the 49 high and medium tariff providers for which information was available to us as being most similar ourselves as a high tariff, traditional university.

What have we gained? 

On first inspection, it appears that just five providers (including the University of Bath) received ‘outstanding’ ratings across all three features of educational gain: SO4 – a provider’s own articulation of the gains it intends its students to achieve, SO5 – its approach to supporting these educational gains, and SO6 – evidence of the gains achieved by the provider’s students.

Below we present some initial observations on educational gain from these five providers, before reflecting on what this might mean for the sector in the near future. 

Some themes among the five outstanding providers emerged, although not all themes appeared in all submissions:

  • Collaboration with their students’ union in co-creating how educational gain is defined, and promoting students as best placed to assess their own educational gain.
  • Referencing their strategy and describing their ethos with a definition capturing the provider’s own distinctive educational offer.
  • Grounding the structure in an institutional framework which provides flexibility and supports individualised learning, emphasising the importance of interdisciplinarity and learning without limits.
  • Focusing on employability and work readiness with real-world experience, seeking to inculcate the most important attributes needed to prepare students for life after graduation.
  • Ambition for students to ‘make a difference’ in their lives and careers with meaningful contributions to society and responses to global challenges.

Interestingly, examining the wider spread of ratings beyond these five institutions, we find a further sixteen providers assessed as outstanding for their definition of intended educational gain, five for their approaches to supporting students, and just one for evaluating gains achieved. This suggests strength across the sector in articulating what this concept means, with recognition from reviewers for doing do so in ways that are meaningful and relevant to individual institutions.

This pattern also suggests that more focus needs to be placed on demonstrating actual approaches that support educational gains, alongside methods employed to evaluate impact.

The November release of information by OfS provides something of a guide as to how submissions were assessed by the TEF panel. The difference between outstanding and very high-quality submissions will likely be an area where further analysis is directed, and providers may reflect on the extent to which they could articulate existing evidence in the next TEF iteration.  

Where next? 

The small number of providers receiving an ‘outstanding’ assessment for all features of educational gain is perhaps not surprising at this point. OfS had previously recognised that there was ‘no national measure of educational gain, and that many providers may not have developed their own approach to measuring the educational gains they deliver for their students’ and had also made clear that lack of evidenced measures would not be a barrier to higher TEF awards. 

However, this dimension will likely be of increasing significance given the indications from OfS that the approach this time around was ‘intended to allow providers time to establish their practice in measuring and evidencing educational gains, which could then become the focus of assessment in subsequent TEF exercises.’  

Whilst previous attempts to define and measure ‘learning gain’ fell short, it appears that educational gain has provided a more accessible concept for the sector to coalesce around. However, this need not indicate a narrowness of focus. We have observed that approaches to educational gain assessed as ‘outstanding’ are often distinctive, speaking with the unique voice of a particular provider, and written with reference to that provider’s principles, strategy and student community. We expect that expanding this review beyond high and medium tariff providers would only increase this multiplicity of approaches.

Initially at least, it appears that educational gain is an opportunity for institutions to share the contribution their individual offer makes to a diverse sector. The challenge for the coming years and future TEF exercises will be to build upon articulation to demonstrate how distinctiveness of intention is supported in practice and impact. 

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