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A long and winding road

TEF boosts teaching status, but not to parity with research

Efforts to promote university teaching to the same status as research may still flounder, argues Alison Goddard.

The results of the Teaching Excellence Framework, published on 22 June, failed to invert the traditional Russell Group dominated hierarchy, which to date has been informed by research excellence. However it did promote some smaller institutions into the top league.

Of the 21 members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities that entered the exercise, eight were rated as gold, 10 received silver and three bronze. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge both won gold, defined as “delivering consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for its students” and “of the highest quality found in the UK”.

Some institutions that have a relatively low showing in research also gained a gold award: the teaching at Coventry University and Liverpool Hope University, for example, was rated the same as that at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Meanwhile there were some high-profile casualties: the London School of Economics and Political Science was rated bronze, prompting claims about the credibility of the exercise.

Overall, one-third of universities gained a gold award, and half were rated silver. Hundreds of further education colleges and small, alternative providers also took part, but were generally outclassed.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, wants to use the TEF results to enable different universities in England to charge different fees, in an extension of the way that the results of the Research Excellence Framework inform the allocation of £6 billion of research funding.

But a REF-style TEF will need an assessment regime at discipline level. Although the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which runs the TEF, is due to pilot subject-level assessments from 2018, developing a robust subject-level TEF to inform funding is likely to take many years. The metrics on which the 2017 TEF was based have yet to be generated at the discipline level, for example. Doing so is likely to reveal the problem of small numbers.

Moreover the REF is run every six or seven years, but the TEF would have to be more frequent, probably every year as it was developed and then every three years. Given that the 2014 REF cost almost £250 million, there is a risk of the price becoming eye-watering.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser to David Willetts when he was universities minister, agrees. “Devising a subject-level TEF will be complex, but every bit of the 2017 TEF that is big, busy and bureaucratic has been inserted at the behest of universities.”

Meanwhile the Labour Party has promised to abolish tuition fees in England, should it win power. Gordon Marsden, the shadow universities minister, has indicated that the party would retain measures to ensure high-quality teaching, but that there would be no link with tuition fees. This would remove the motivation for universities to submit to the assessment. Both the TEF and the REF are voluntary exercises.

Perhaps the real power of the TEF relies not on forging a link between its results and the level of tuition fees that can be set in England, but rather on the behavioural changes that it might inspire.

A survey of international students conducted by Hobsons, an education consultancy, found that many were intending to use the TEF results to inform their choice of institution for entry in autumn 2018.

Since losing her parliamentary majority, Theresa May has not recommitted the government to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Nor has she repeated her advice for universities to become less dependent on international students. If international students, paying tuition fees that are not limited by the government, start to favour universities with high TEF ratings, then university leaders may seek to improve their TEF status.

In any case, the TEF will be subject to a full and independent review in 2019, to assess whether it is fit for purpose and is actually helping students. The REF succeeds as an exercise because kudos and cash go hand in hand. There is a long way to go before the same could be said of the teaching assessment.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight