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What TEF really means

Kenny Nicholl, Vice President EMEA of Instructure discusses the importance of putting the student experience first 

Posted by Hannah Vickers | July 12, 2017 | Students

If you work in higher education, you’ve no doubt seen the fallout from the publication of the recent Teaching Excellence Framework results. The TEF, which was introduced in 2016, is being administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and is said to measure issues that students really care about, such as:

  • High-quality, engaged teaching
  • A supportive, stimulating learning environment
  • Having the knowledge and skills they need to achieve their potential
  • The opportunity to progress to a good job or further study

The framework revealed a number of surprising results, including some elite institutions not being ranked as highly as expected. But experts at Hefce argue that the framework would have comprehensively failed if it had simply replicated existing hierarchies. It was always designed, they say, to do something different to other league tables and rankings—namely, to identify pockets of excellence that have been ignored and to encourage improvements elsewhere.

For many, TEF is a blunt tool with fundamental issues. It is based on data and not actual inspections of lectures or other teaching. As a result, some educators report that TEF does not "accurately reflect what goes on in lecture halls"

But for many, TEF is a blunt tool with fundamental issues. It is based on data and not actual inspections of lectures or other teaching. As a result, some educators report that TEF does not "accurately reflect what goes on in lecture halls".

Experts stress that universities may have individual elements that differ from their overall rankings. For example, a university awarded bronze could have elements of gold or silver, so TEF ratings shouldn’t be taken as the de-facto standard, but should sit alongside other measures.

Not a perfect system

At Instructure, we agree that TEF isn’t perfect. We tell our customers that raw data must be used alongside subjective analysis. At the moment, TEF is a data-led measure, which rates an entire university, rather than taking into account the nuances of individual courses.

But it does provide impetus for a fundamental re-focusing of the industry, which is already moving away from comparing institutions based on their research acumen and funding, to judging the student experience and the quality of teaching and learning provided.

Ultimately, while the rating does fuel inter-institutional competition, as with any league table, it’s important to remember that, in HE, we are all on the same page. Every institution wants to deliver a more valuable education - in the face of dwindling budgets, bigger populations, an unknown employment market and heightened competition - and universities are increasingly aware that a focus on student-centred learning is the only way to do this.

What student centred really means

For us, the TEF is a reminder that the student experience should be at the heart of everything we do. Ensuring students are motivated, engaged and involved in the direction of their own studies will help address dropout rates, and will ultimately help improve results.

A focus on student experience is about emphasising how people learn, not just what they learn

A focus on student experience is about emphasising how people learn, not just what they learn. Ultimately, this approach delivers rounded, practical, well-adjusted graduates. Empowering students to learn in their own way is crucial in helping them reach their full potential, both in theoretical as well as social skills

Being student-centred also has significant ramifications for employability. If learning at university is highly-structured and almost exclusively teacher-directed, students experience a dichotomy when they enter the workforce where they’re suddenly expected to self-direct their work in low-structure environments.

A kick off point—not the final mile

So, while we know that TEF isn’t a perfect measure—and that the results should be viewed carefully—we believe that the framework reinforces the need for a student-centred approach. It demonstrates that students should graduate not just knowing ‘stuff’ but with critical thinking and applied knowledge skills that prepare them both for the workforce and for a fulfilling role in society.

And, if we think of student-centred learning as a path that continually gives students more choice, control and responsibility for the learning process, we'll see that we can adjust our teaching, our classrooms and our students' expectations to achieve better results. 

Kenny Nicholl is Vice President EMEA of Instructure

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