What is the Purpose of the Teaching Excellence Framework?

Opinion Piece by Joshua Forstenzer (Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow for the Public Benefit of Higher Education, University of Sheffield)

The higher education Green Paper is a radical document. From its proposed rework of the higher education sector’s governance and regulation structure, to its plans designed to introduce greater competition between newly formed private providers (giving them greater access to university status and degree bearing capacity) and public universities (ridding them of the responsibility to respond to Freedom of Information requests), the Green Paper presents a series of sweeping changes to British higher education. However, nowhere is the Green Paper’s radical potential more directed at the very core of university life than in the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). That is why this report focuses exclusively on the TEF.

The general ambition of the TEF is to rebalance ‘the relationship between teaching and research’ in universities and to put ‘teaching at the heart of the system’, by introducing a teaching quality assessment mechanism using core metrics and qualitative evidence. In exchange, universities deemed to have ‘excellent’ teaching will be rewarded with the right to increase undergraduate fees in line with inflation. Although there will be a technical consultation about the exact metrics used in the TEF, it will start with three readily available common metrics, namely: Employment/Destination; Retention/Continuation; Student Satisfaction indicators from the National Student Survey (teaching quality and learning environment).

While the government has sought to depoliticise the TEF, there is a more fundamental set of political and ethical questions about the purposes and social value of higher education that needs to be at the heart of this debate. Indeed, over the last few decades, much has been written about the overall trend towards marketisation in British higher education. This report proposes to understand the TEF as a policy proposal forming part of that wider trend, by considering the following criticisms: the TEF is not really about teaching excellence, but about fees; the TEF does not serve students, but an imagined group of employers; the TEF ignores the wider public benefits of undergraduate education.

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CDBU’s Response to the Green Paper

The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) today submitted its response to the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“.

We undertook this exercise in good faith and with good will since the focus of the Green Paper is on issues close to the heart of our founding values: how to assure the continued high quality of university education in the UK, and how to ensure wide and fair access to higher education. One of our aims as an organization is to provide expert, insider advice on, and responses to, government policy proposals that look to build on the already considerable achievements of UK higher education. What our close analysis of the Green Paper has revealed, regrettably, is that ‘consultation’ is a misnomer, since in its content and wording the document reveals time and again that the recommendations, far from being proposed as possibilities, are assumed by the authors of the Green Paper to be acceptable and to be awaiting implementation.

Equally, if not more worryingly, the quality of the arguments, of the evidence used, and of the presentation of the recommendations, is inadequate. One of the chief policies – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – is put forward to address putative problems, without providing any evidence that these problems exist. The proposed TEF would be an expensive and bureaucratic system that would entail increasing complexity and disruption for years to come. The use of proxies, such as the NSS or graduate income, for teaching excellence is at odds with the ethos and values of education and scholarship. Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take). This is to misunderstand how universities work; to ignore the fact that unlike profit-driven organizations, the idea – and subsequent success – of our UK universities is rooted in staff and students working not towards a transaction but towards collaboration in the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, and truth.

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More Misrepresentation in the Green Paper Damages its Credibility

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

In my previous post, I queried the justification for the proposed new Teaching Excellence Framework. According to the Green Paper, research-intensive universities undervalue teaching, and students and employers are dissatisfied with the quality of teaching in UK Higher Education. I argued that evidence for these claims was lacking. I have now scrutinised in detail the case made in the Green Paper. I thought that perhaps there was better evidence buried in there that I had missed. What I discovered was alarming. I found numerous instances where evidence was cited but in a misleading way.

Here are some examples:

Introduction: The productivity challenge, point 9: Higher education providers need to provide degrees with lasting value to their recipients. This will mean providers being open to involving employers and learned societies representing professions in curriculum design. It will also mean teaching students the transferrable work readiness skills that businesses need, including collaborative teamwork and the development of a positive work ethic, so that they can contribute more effectively to our efforts to boost the productivity of the UK economy.”

A report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills is cited in the Green Paper. There is just one mention of graduates in the report, on page 3. It states: “Over eight in ten employers found university graduates to be well prepared for work.”

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The shaky foundations of the TEF: neither logically nor practically defensible

*Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

I spent Sunday reading the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“, a consultation document that outlines radical plans to change how universities are evaluated and funded. The CDBU is preparing a response, but here’s the problem. BIS is not seeking views on whether the new structures they plan to introduce are a good idea. They are telling us that they are a good idea, a necessary idea, and an idea that they will implement. The consultation is to ask for views on details of that implementation.

The government will no doubt be braced for howls of protest from the usual suspects. Academics are notorious for resisting change, so there is an expectation that there will be opposition from many of the rank and file who work in universities, especially from those whose political allegiances are left of centre. CDBU is, however, a broad church, and disquiet with the Green Paper comes from academics covering a wide range of political views.

The idea behind the TEF is that teaching has not been taken seriously enough in our Universities, because they have been fixated on research. As a consequence, students are getting a raw deal and employers are dissatisfied that graduates are not adequately prepared for the workplace. However, the evidence for these assertions is pretty shaky. If you’re going to introduce a whole new administrative machinery, then you have to demonstrate that it will fix a problem. A number of commentators have warned that TEF is a solution to a problem that does not exist.

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Reflections on the Green Paper (2): Opening the Market to New Providers

Opinion piece by Roger Brown

Background

The focus of the Green Paper is not just on students and teaching: it also envisages a situation where there will be more competition among providers of higher education, and new entrants into the system:

We hope providers receiving a lower TEF assessment will choose to raise their teaching standards in order to maintain student numbers. Eventually, we anticipate some lower quality providers withdrawing from the sector, leaving space for new entrants, and raising quality overall. (page 19)

The proposal is for a ‘single route into higher education, through which all providers are equally able to select an operating model which works for them – both at entry and once in the system’ (page 42). This new single route would give:

  • Quicker access to student funding (and no cap on student numbers);
  • The ability to apply earlier for degree awarding powers (DAPs) (with a more flexible approach to track record);
  • A shorter time for DAPs assessment;
  • The ability to secure university title much earlier, if conditions are met.

The proposal is also for providers to have contingency arrangements in place that set out the approach and commitments to students in the event of course or campus closure. This would cover both continuity of provision and financial recompense. In addition, it is suggested that the OfS could support (and if necessary direct) regulated providers to consider whether and how they should exit the sector in an orderly way, where it is in the public interest to do so.

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