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.

Ultimately, this report engages with the wider question of purpose in higher education and argues that the TEF’s overly mechanistic and market-driven approach to ‘evaluating’ teaching excellence threatens to eclipse the wider social and personal purposes of undergraduate education.

The report therefore recommends the following:

  • The issue of fees should be entirely disentangled from the TEF, because the proposed connection would amount to lifting the cap on fees by stealth and would erode the confidence of students and academic staff in the wider goal of rebalancing teaching and research priorities.
  • Assessment of graduate progression should include a wider definition of valuable and productive employment, beyond simply an assessment based on salary – a measurement notoriously uneven across sectors and which ignores the equally profound impact on future earnings of social class, networks, access to placements, and most crucially, financial support to undertake internships and offset the costs of working and living in London.
  • The TEF ought to reflect higher education’s full range of social purposes. To that end, the White Paper and the technical consultation on metrics should expand on the brief set out in the Green Paper to ensure that TEF metrics and panel guidance reflect all of these social purposes.
  • Decision-makers should consider that the simplest method to achieve a rebalancing of teaching and research is not the introduction of a TEF, but rather the abandonment of the REF coupled with the improved student representation of student interests in the broadest sense, first but not exclusively by students themselves.

For the full report, see: http://www.crickcentre.org/new-report-on-teaching-excellence-framework/