The TEF purports to rate university teaching, categorising each institution as gold, silver or bronze. In reality, the metrics used do not measure teaching quality – they relate instead to graduate employment rates, retention rates and scores on the National Student Survey. This misuse of proxy indicators risks damaging the reputation of UK Higher Education. The government wants TEF rankings to be linked to the ability to raise student fees. We believe that this will encourage universities to find ways of gaming the results while doing nothing to improve the quality of teaching.
So why does the TEF exist in the first place? It has been presented as a necessary quality control in response to student dissatisfaction over lack of information about courses and poor ‘value for money’. But transparent provision of course information does not require a bureaucratic rating exercise, and “value for money” is largely driven by the high fees that English students pay – not by a perception of poor teaching quality.
Because the flawed TEF process does not command respect from those in higher education, it was anticipated that universities might opt out. To prevent that, it was decided that fees would be linked with ratings: gold-rated institutions would be able to charge more than bronze-rated ones. This would mean a cut in income in real terms for those with lower ratings, who would not keep pace with inflation.
Now that concerns about high student fees are back on the political agenda, the TEF plans are being revisited, and starting to undergo the kind of evaluation and scrutiny that should have been undertaken before TEF was introduced. It is important that those involved in teaching in our universities are listened to.
Our view is that universities exist to carry out research and educate students to the highest standards. We need to restore a sense of trust between government and universities; those teaching and researching in universities are motivated by doing a good job, not by some simple-minded competition, in which excellence is reduced to a gold, silver or bronze badge.