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TEF results: the first step down a new path for HE

This year's TEF result is only a kick off, but it is an important start, says Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen

Posted by Hannah Vickers | July 31, 2017 | Students

For some universities and colleges, the outcome of the recent UK government-led Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was reassuring. They had been right to recognise the importance of teaching. For others, it was a rude awakening, and I suspect some are still in denial.

Something similar happened two decades ago, when the national research assessment was introduced. It woke universities up to the importance of research, not just in terms of the (additional) money that subsequently was received for research, but more importantly for the impact it had on academic respectability and the ranking position, which influences the quality and quantity of applications. 

In hindsight, it is strange the research assessment was introduced so long before the teaching assessment. Academic research is important, not just for prestige but for the benefit of society as a whole. However, when it comes to student applications, research status in a specific field of study is of rather modest relevance. Admittedly, it is useful information for those students who would like to remain in academia after graduation, but this affects only a tiny fraction of graduates. 

The conventional argument previously was that quality teaching is very much dependent on cutting-edge research. Looking at the TEF results, one can politely put a question mark behind that assumption. It is crucial that lecturers stay in touch with the latest developments in their field. This is often referred to as 'scholarly' activity rather than actual research. Also, as the majority of tertiary teaching is focused on professional rather than academic or broad education, a scholarly base is not enough. 

It is at least equally important to remain in touch with developments in the profession itself. To give an example, now several decades old, I remember an architecture school that insisted that students had to spend significant effort mastering drawing skills whilst ignoring the fact that the entire architecture practice had already moved to Computer Aided Design. They surely published frequently, but were very much out of touch with the realities of the profession.

TEF is now offering a proper counterweight, giving prospective students more useful information about what to expect when choosing a college than the research assessment was able to do

TEF is now offering a proper counterweight, giving prospective students more useful information about what to expect when choosing a college than the research assessment was able to do. Of course, the 2017 TEF exercise is only a pilot. Many institutions cannot enter the assessment yet because they have to wait for the appropriate data to become available over the next few years.

Another word of caution is that the playing field is not as level as one might think. A small, highly selective college should score higher in TEF than a large, quite open institution, especially if it is based in a very metropolitan environment. We know these factors heavily influence, for instance, student satisfaction, even though they do not necessarily reflect actual teaching quality.

Of course, one can have a lengthy discussion about methodology. Academics base their teaching and research on critical thinking and analytical skills, so no doubt will embrace such a debate with passion. It is likely that over the years the TEF assessment will become more sophisticated, and actually, the shifting of methodology is crucial to keep the exercise alive and relevant. This is partly because academic institutions are smart and quickly learn the rules of how the game work, and thus how to reach high scores. Only frequent changes to the methodology will prevent institutions from playing the game. The same happened with the research assessment, not just in the UK but in many countries: initially it was heavily biased toward publications, then quickly shifted towards citations as a more appropriate measure, and then started to move towards assessing the actual impact of research on society. The latter is much more difficult to do, and hence often got ignored, but in more recent times was recognised as much more sensible focus than what became jokingly referred to as 'mutual peer group admiration'.

This year's TEF result is only a kick off, but it is an important start. It is not only a first serious attempt to inform applicants properly, it equally makes it clear to colleges that they should take teaching quality very seriously

This year's TEF result is only a kick off, but it is an important start. It is not only a first serious attempt to inform applicants properly, it equally makes it clear to colleges that they should take teaching quality very seriously. The latter is good news for those within the institutions who have been arguing this for many years. They now have powerful external support in their mission to put the student at the heart of our learning institutions, rather than treating them as a by-product in the pursuit of research excellence and academic status. 

So a well-deserved hurray for TEF and congratulations to those 38 institutions that gained gold. Unsurprisingly, the two institutions that were ranked top in the National Student Survey, The University of Law and University of Buckingham, were amongst them. So let that help put to rest the prejudice that you need to be old, publicly funded and/or research-led to be respectable. A university might be privately funded, young, large, or small, but when it takes teaching seriously, it rightly gets acknowledged. Finally!

Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen is an economic historian and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS)

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