TEF: so what is a ‘subject’?

Opinion piece by Professor G. R. Evans

The subject-based Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) promises to give prospective university students clear, easy-to-understand information so that they can see at a glance where ‘excellent teaching and student outcomes can be found’, at a level of detail which will enable them to choose not only a university but a course. A consultation has just opened on the ‘technical aspects’ of the implementation of this ‘subject level’ TEF. The consultation runs alongside a Year Three Subject Pilot, which is being conducted by the  soon-to-disappear Higher Education Funding Council for England, on behalf of the Department for Education.  The Consultation’s closing date is 20 May.

What counts as a ‘subject’? 

If provision of ratings for courses at ‘subject’ level is to be robust, an accurate definition of a ‘subject’ is going to be important. The prospective student still at school has already faced ‘ subject-choices’ on the way to gaining the qualifications needed to get a university place.  But those options may not fit tidily with the ‘informed choices’ TEF hopes to offer. The conventional dozen subjects appropriate for degree-level study in England identified from the nineteenth century still dominate the list of A level subjects likely to be taken seriously by the Russell Group universities.  Students whose schools put them in for some of the wide range of BTEC qualifications at level 3 may then find they are in subjects not acceptable for entry to some universities or for some courses. On this problem UCAS offers some guidance and a warning.  TEF planning so far does not appear to have considered its relevance.

The subjects of courses on offer by higher education providers have multiplied and diversified hugely in recent decades. Interdisciplinary work too is having its day with Government endorsement in both teaching and research. It is recognised in the Consultation document that ‘provision at many providers will cross the boundaries of any subject or discipline definitions we use’.

Comparing the incommensurable is bound to be unsatisfactory and  yet it seems clear that the definition of a ‘subject’  for TEF purposes is a long way from having any agreed parameters  of subject classification to enable like to be compared with like.   The Pilot identified a ‘strong consensus’ that:

 it would be greatly preferable for the TEF to use an existing subject classification system rather than to create a new one.

However, there have been several attempts to group subjects leading to several rival lists, so a choice has to be made:

The CAH has recently been developed by HESA as an aggregation system to sit alongside the Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS), the new subject coding system. CAH and HECoS will together replace JACS, which is currently used by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for students applying to university.

Among the Consultation questions is one touching on the Quality Assurance Agency’s Subject benchmark statements, which offer a further approach to the identification and grouping of subjects in higher education.  The QAA sees these as, among other things, ‘of interest to prospective students and employers, seeking information about the nature and standards of awards in a subject area’, in other words, as meeting a key need identified by the architects of subject-level TEF. The Statements are compiled by committees of specialist academics and regularly reviewed. They ‘set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas’:

They describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject.

Nevertheless this system of subject identification was not favoured by the architects of the Pilot:

 The two classifications that received most support were the Units of Assessment used in the Research Excellence Framework (REF UoAs) and the CAH developed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

The consultation document indicates that the CAH2 (see Table 1) will be used.

Table 1: CAH2 classification to be used in TEF

Against using the UoAs on which the REF was based, it was pointed out that linking REF to TEF for these purposes would:

 send a negative message contrary to our commitment to increase the parity of esteem between research and teaching, because it would mean research considerations would be driving the TEF as well as the REF.

Besides, it was suggested that it might be unfair to students even to try:

one grouping includes both ‘veterinary’ and ‘food science’, two subjects which are completely different from a student perspective.

‘Mixed module’ subjects

 This last point is of an importance which does not seem to have been considered at the current stage of modelling a subject-based TEF.  It is instructive to look at the content of some Complementary Medicine courses,  which have been only rather recently added to the catalogue of accepted UK degree subjects, for example ‘Herbal medicine’ and ‘Chiropractic’.

A BSc in Herbal Medicine is offered by the post-1992 University of Westminster, in its Faculty of Science and Technology.  This course includes conventional accepted scientific modules such as ‘botany’ and ‘physiology’ and others with less established traditional acceptance as serious science such as ‘Herbal medicine therapeutics’.  A graduate might or might not find the embedded qualification for  ‘botany’ or ‘physiology’ obtained on this course helpful in getting a job.

What is an’ accreditation’ worth in the job market?

The accreditation of courses is another area the planning for subject-level TEF has not yet addressed. In some cases getting a job in the field of a degree depends on licensing by a professional body.

An Integrated Undergraduate Masters in Chiropractic (MChiro) course is offered by the alternative provider BPP University.  Its ‘course details’ available to students looking for information online are sketchy from the point of view of subject-matter detail, but it notes accreditation of the course by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC):

‘This means that you are qualified to apply to register with the GCC, the statutory body regulating Chiropractic in the UK.’ 

This accrediting body is moving to self-assessment by its recognised providers, including arrangements for programme submission.  A graduate would be able to proceed to practise as a Chiropractor but again it is less clear how acceptable this degree might be for other purposes.

Apart from the Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies on which the QAA keeps an eye, self-defined ‘accreditors’ are legion. For example, Counselling and Psychotherapy have numerous ‘accrediting’ bodies.   These vary considerably in their membership requirements and some have categories of membership, such as ‘associate member’ and ‘accredited member’.

So in many subjects on offer for degrees it is less clear what accreditation may be available for ‘professional’ purposes and what weight it may carry in the search for employment or practice.

What is the relationship between the study of a subject and a well-paid job?

There is a considerable area of uncertainty about the relationship between the study of a subject and a well-paid job going even wider than these considerations.  Higher education graduate employment and earnings released on 15 March. is an update to the Longitudinal educational outcomes data (LEO). But the LEO data ‘shows a plethora of different factors influences earning potential, particularly student background and environmental attributes, which are all outside the control of HE institutions’. It does not and cannot demonstrate a clear link between degree outcomes alone and graduate earnings.

The problem of assessing subject provision has defeated previous attempts

The last time an attempt was made to rate teaching in universities at subject level through the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA), it had to be ended in  2001 in the face of vigorous protest both from academics themselves and from universities, whose managements complained of the excessive burden it imposed.

However, it also came to grief as a result of ‘gaming’ by universities which made its results no longer pausible as a measure of achievement:

The teaching quality assessment exercise has been rendered all but meaningless by grade inflation, gamesmanship and the rise of inspectors’ “cartels”, experts have claimed.

In 2005, the remaining selective ‘drill down’ QAA ‘’discipline audit trails’ came to an end.Providers will certainly ‘game’ whatever the TEF introduces and because ‘teaching intensity’ information ‘is not routinely collected by providers’ introducing that ‘supplementary’ requirement  ‘would require new data to be collected’:

’The Government considers it important that data collection in this area should not itself drive teaching practices’. 

It seems inevitable that it will do so.

If rating ‘subject-teaching’ proves not to be reliable, it could become a hostage to fortune. A graduate from Anglia Ruskin University who claims she did not get the career advancement the prospectus had seemed to promise and had unsuccessfully taken her complaint through various channels, recently decided to sue. Reliance on the planned subject-based ratings could tempt many more disappointed students to do the same if they claim they had been misled. At the very least providers could find themselves facing a rising tide of complaints. In their turn some may be seeking redress against the designers of the new TEF for ratings they may claim to have been distorted by failure to identify the ‘subjects’ accurately.