TEF and the reputation of UK Higher Education

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

The publication of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results this week was greeted with predictable glee by sections of the media. The Times was delighted to report that “The LSE, Southampton and Liverpool, all members of the elite Russell Group, were handed the lowest bronze award in the first Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). They shared the ranking with the likes of Accrington and Rossendale College and Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education.” The scent of Schadenfreude was thick in the air: Oh, how are the mighty fallen: those snobby ivory towers mingling with the proletarian Northern oiks. And was it deserved? Of course it was: a Bronze award meant that they had been “short-changing students with poor lectures, aloof tutors or second-rate facilities.” Our poor students, who are now paying £9,000 per annum in fees, must be warned off these snobbish institutions, who ignore their needs while pursuing their dilettante interests in research.

This account of TEF results was, of course, rather at odds with the criteria for a Bronze award provided by HEFCE, which state it is: “for delivering teaching, learning and outcomes for its students that meet rigorous national quality requirements for UK higher education.” This is in contrast with a Silver award, for teaching that “consistently exceeds” those requirements, and Gold, which is “consistently outstanding“.

Much has been, and no doubt will be said about problems with the methods used by the TEF. Indeed, the chair of the TEF panel, Chris Husbands, admits it is not a measure of teaching excellence, but rather is “a measure based on some of the outcomes of teaching.” But the general response of those involved was that nothing’s perfect, the TEF was here to stay, and we’d better make the best of it.

This is strangely reminiscent of Brexit, which is widely seen to be a risky process likely to play havoc with the nation’s economic prosperity and general wellbeing, yet is regarded as inevitable as “the will of the people” and therefore cannot be questioned, but must be embraced and treated as an opportunity.

I beg to differ. I see it as the height of irresponsibility to go along with a process that exposes our higher education system to potential for harm without considering whether those risks outweigh the benefits. The potential for reputational damage is all too evident  in the reactions by the media. Whatever HEFCE or Chris Husbands may say, it is clear that an institution in receipt of a Bronze award will be regarded as third rate. Since both the reliability and the validity of the rankings are questionable, this means that, at a time when Brexit is already posing major challenges to the sector, we are throwing in spurious denigration of a subset of institutions for good measure. Of course, one can say, it’s the fault of the media. It is clear that the Times would not fare well if newspapers were evaluated on a Reporting Excellence Framework. But the reaction of the media was entirely predictable, and anyone who doubted that they would make a meal of this story is naïve.

In other sections of the media, and in government, those who raise objections to TEF are accused of underhand motives. We don’t value teaching, or we are arrogant, complacent, and unable to take criticism. That may be true for some, but the majority of academics worth their salt will reject TEF because it is everything good academic research should not be: simplistic, arbitrary and inadequately tested. As Helen Czerski noted on Twitter: “It is the tombstone of irony in higher education that ability of universities to teach nuance, subtle judgement and critical thinking is branded gold, silver, or bronze.” And Neuroneurotic wrote in a blogpost: “The one lesson I would take from this for UK Universities, is that we are clearly failing to educate politicians and policy makers to think carefully about evidence based policy.

Another argument that keeps popping up is a version of put up or shut up: if academics can’t think of better metrics for TEF, then they can’t argue against it. Well, here’s a suggestion. We are told that we desperately need TEF because students want to have information that is reflected in the metrics. Well, why not provide the raw information? In fact, most of it, such as the National Student Survey results, is already publicly available – and indeed in a more relevant subject-specific form. It’s already established that higher education institutions should make available online information about details such as their course content, entry requirements, and drop-out rates. They could also be invited to include on their websites the kind of detailed narrative account of their teaching practices that was submitted to the TEF. All of this could be done without any need to convene a committee to sit down and ponder how to condense all this rich multifactorial information into three categories – applied not to the teaching of a specific subject, but to the entire institution.

I have written previously about the fiction that the TEF was developed in response to demand by students.  Unfortunately, the true reason for reducing teaching evaluation to this drastically clumsy and gross 3-item scale is to have a means of exerting control by using it to determine fee levels. We have to ask ourselves whether the vice-chancellors of our universities are guilty of neglect for taking that bait and going along with a scheme that poses such risks to the reputation of our higher education system.