The aim of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to offer a measure of the quality of teaching in universities in England, in the same way that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) provides a measure of research quality.
It was first mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2015 and the concept has since been championed by Jo Johnson, the incoming minister for universities and science.
After extensive discussions with the higher education sector during summer 2015, the government published a green paper (Higher Education: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice) in November. The green paper contains proposals and options relating to the TEF as well as other aspects of higher education policy. It went out for consultation with a closing date of January 2016, and the government is now considering the sector’s responses.
The QAA carries out a higher education review once every five years for all UK universities. This assesses overall quality, but it doesn’t give a relative measure of quality across different institutions. Under the TEF proposals, a successful QAA review will result in achieving the first level of the TEF.
The green paper doesn’t go into great detail but it does outline some proposals. For example, in the TEF’s first year the assessment will be based only on the QAA review, so universities will only be able to achieve level one of the TEF. This will provide more time to finalise how the TEF process will work in subsequent years.
The assessment itself is likely to involve a combination of metrics, which may include existing results such as the National Student Survey (NSS) and Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey (DLHE), alongside a written submission from the university that would be assessed by a peer group of experts.
There’s a financial incentive, because universities that get a good TEF score will be allowed to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation. At Southampton we will automatically achieve the first level of the TEF because we have had a successful QAA assessment, so we’ll be able to increase our 2017/18 fees in line with inflation. The detail about how this will work in subsequent years is yet to be mapped out.
The proposals suggest that once universities have been through the first and second year of assessments, more detailed assessments would take place once every three years.
The government will publish what’s known as a technical consultation, probably in May, which will set things out in more detail.
As members of the Russell Group and Universities UK, the previous and current Vice-Chancellors have been involved in the formative discussions. In terms of the formal consultation, the University responded to the green paper in January along with many other UK universities.
As part of my role, I coordinate responses to government consultations that relate to the business of the University (rather than an area of research expertise such climate change or transport policy). I look at each consultation and make recommendations to the Vice-Chancellor about whether we should respond and if so, who should contribute to the response. In this case, Professor Alex Neill, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, led a small group of staff who worked through the consultation questions and formulated responses. The responses were then circulated to a wider group for further comment and input. As with all our higher education consultation responses, the final submission is available online.
The REF has become incredibly influential since it was first introduced as the Research Assessment Exercise in the 1990s. Just as the purpose of the REF is to improve research quality, the TEF, if it’s a success, will be a focus for universities to improve the quality of their teaching. A good TEF score will therefore offer reputational advantage.
Today’s prospective students already have access to vast amounts of information, so the weighting they place on a university’s TEF ranking will depend on their perception of its importance compared with all the other available data. If the TEF amalgamates lots of information into one simpler measure, I’m sure students would find that very useful.
The basic premise that universities should seek to deliver the highest quality teaching is clearly one that everybody would agree with. The difficulty lies in how to measure teaching quality. On the research side, we now have more than 20 years of experience of the REF process, which is based on well-understood research outputs – for example, research publications in peer-reviewed journals. However, there is no equivalent teaching output. For example, outputs such as the level of degree students achieve could have as much to do with the quality of the student intake as the standard of education they receive. So there is a concern that the TEF metrics won’t really measure what they are setting out to measure.
We already have a number of ways to assess our educational performance, such as the NSS and DLHE, so there’s also a concern that the TEF will create extra bureaucracy for little additional informational gain. Many universities’ responses to the green paper, including our own, suggest using these existing measures rather than putting new ones in place.
We can work towards improving the metrics that the TEF will use, which means doing better in the NSS and DLHE. That’s very easy to say, but difficult to do! However, it aligns with our focus on improving our educational performance and quality, as outlined in the University’s strategy.
Our students already tell us what we’re doing well and what we aren’t doing so well via the NSS. We need to think about what we can learn from the subject areas in which we have the best NSS scores, as well as from the universities that are ahead of us on the NSS leader board.
In the longer term it’s likely that the University will set up structures to make sure that every part of its TEF process works well, as it has with the REF.
We are expecting the more detailed technical consultation to be launched in May this year. We’re also expecting the Queen’s speech in mid-May to include an announcement of the Higher Education Bill, which will take forward some of the initiatives outlined in the green paper. The Bill will probably go through the House of Commons and House of Lords this autumn or winter.