Could the TEF be a disservice to the sector?

Acting Director of the Russell Group Dr Tim Bradshaw blogs on the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

The question of how to improve the service universities provide to students is something that keeps vice-chancellors up at night. This is why our members are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new facilities, pastoral care and enhancements to the learning and teaching experience. Academic support is being boosted on campuses right across the country.  

The publication of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) year 2 outcomes is the first time the Government has made an attempt to capture the work universities are doing in this area systematically. We support moves to ensure applicants get accurate information about their higher education options, but it is no secret that many in the sector have concerns over the calculation of the TEF outcomesand how they will be interpreted. 

By measuring performance against expected benchmark values based on student profiles, rather than absolute outcomes, the current TEF model risks understating how well some universities are performing. It is right we recognise improvements across the sector, and celebrate them. But on the strength of the metrics alone, some universities may find it near impossible to secure a gold or silver TEF rating even if they are outperforming most other institutions. 

For instance, we could see institutions where close to 10% of students drop out after the first year gain a positive flag on non-completion rates. A university where the number of drop outs is closer to 1% could easily miss out on a flag because they were unable to demonstrate progress in an area where they are already doing very well. These flags form a core part of the overall TEF outcome statement. 

If TEF rankings are taken at face value then it is easy to imagine potential students ruling out otherwise excellent universities on the basis of an untested measure that does not fully reflect the experience universities provide. This would be bad news for applicants and universities alike. 

If TEF rankings are taken at face value then it is easy to imagine potential students ruling out otherwise excellent universities on the basis of an untested measure that does not fully reflect the experience universities provide

Ministers have acknowledged some of the issues with the TEF and shown they are willing to listen to the concerns of the sector, which is very welcome. The late amendments to the Higher Education and Research Act on the TEF were helpful and, in particular, we look forward to the full independent assessment that will be undertaken in the next couple of years. We will work constructively with the Government to improve the TEF throughout this process.  

However, the TEF results present a communication challenge that needs to be addressed now – even if this year is billed as a ‘trial year’. Applicants who are yet to take a final decision on their academic options for this year are likely to use the TEF to help them pick courses. Independent research has also made it clear international applicants considering courses for next year will use TEF outcomes to help guide them, despite the fact that the current methodology does not look at the experiences of overseas students in any significant detail. 

Some institutions – including Russell Group universities – have opted out of the TEF this year. We need to ensure applicants understand why they took this decision, and that this does not reflect any shortcomings in terms of the quality of teaching they offer. This is not simply a job for universities. The new Government, University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) must provide supplementary guidance for applicants explaining what the TEF results mean in practice and how they can be used alongside the range of information about courses and institutions which is already available. 

Russell Group universities deliver an outstanding student experience where teaching is enhanced by world-class research and facilities. This is why our graduates are among the most sought after in the world. UK higher education as a whole has a global reputation for the quality of our teaching and research. The publication of TEF outcomes will not change that fact. It would be a huge disservice to the sector, and the nation as a whole, if these trial year TEF results are taken out of that wider context.

This post originally appeared on the Russell Group website. 

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