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Why is the Government quiet about the Teaching Excellence Framework?

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In November 2015 the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) began a consultation on reshaping the Higher Education landscape to have students at its heart. Titled Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the Green Paper included an outline of the much anticipated Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The consultation ended on the 15th of January and it has been extremely quiet ever since. Why?

Rumour has it that BIS has received A LOT of feedback. Just to give you an idea, Wonkhe has put together responses spanning thousands of pages from 80 sector bodies, universities and unions. 

This article tries to piece together the major proposals behind the paper and the objections that have been raised by various individuals and organisations. Here we go.

Lukewarm support from the get go

Even before November, support for the rumoured TEF was lukewarm. A few days after the release of the Green Paper, Times Higher Education published partial results from its 2016 Best University Workplace survey which revealed that only one in five university staff embraced TEF.

The survey ran for two more months and the responses to the statement ‘I believe a teaching excellence framework (TEF) is needed to improve teaching quality at my institution’ revealed the following picture:

  • disagree: 60% of academics (& 40.1% of all staff)
  • undecided: 21% of academics (& 40.4% of all staff)
  • agree: 19% of academics (& 19.4% of all staff)

Answers to “I believe a teaching excellence framework (TEF) is needed to improve teaching quality at my institution”

A common concern amongst those who opposed TEF is the fear of managerial interference in the classroom.

“Teaching and learning policies have already become increasingly onerous, overbearing, and distrustful of the abilities and autonomy of staff with every passing year. These policies discourage innovation and the development of new modules/courses” — comment from an academic in the THE survey

Nevertheless, many appeared to support TEF’s aim of building a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as great researchers.

“Research is rewarded, teaching is not.”  — comment from anonymous academic

Not just about teaching

People were expecting a framework to regulate teaching excellence. What they got instead was a far more overarching reform of the English Higher Education system.

Goodbye HEFCE & OFFA. Hello “Office for Students”!

Currently, nine core bodies support the English Higher Education system:

  • Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)
  • Student Loans Company (SLC) 
  • Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE)
  • Office for Fair Access (OFFA)
  • Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)
  • Higher Education Academy (HEA)
  • Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)
  • Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)
  • University and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS)

In an attempt to create a simpler and more efficient architecture, the paper proposes the creation of the Office for Students (OfS). An amalgamation of various sector bodies and their functions, the new entity would primarily be the merger of HEFCE and OFFA.

The response to this move has been mixed. A common concern is related to the broader functions of HEFCE which are not covered by the new OfS. On a larger scale, there are still unanswered questions about the impact of this new English architecture on the rest of the UK.

In contrast, NUS has declared support, provided that “the body will indeed best represent the interests of students, ensure that students are fully involved in defining what those interests are and also provide crucial support services to institutions”.

Redefining the process for establishing new universities

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The Green Paper expresses a strong desire to create more competition in the marketplace. New providers would use a ‘single route of entry’ system operated by the new OfS. In addition, the processes for acquiring degree-awarding powers and securing the title ‘university’, would be fast-tracked, enabling successful providers to acquire the title within six years.

The official response from Universities UK on the matter has been summarised by Chris Hale, Director of Policy:

In terms of the proposals for market entry set out in the Green Paper, our clear message is that students and graduates are best protected by a system that sets consistent and robust standards of entry and promotes the sustainability of providers. High thresholds for entry into the sector are essential and the proposed changes should not erode these. The consolidation of the current regulatory requirements into a single gateway into the higher education sector makes a lot of sense, but the current process for degree awarding powers is underpinned by requirements for an extensive evidence base and track record and we would not want to see this diminished.

The metrics dilemma

Back to TEF. The Green Paper recognises that there is no single broadly accepted definition of ‘teaching excellence’. Until a technical consultation about appropriate metrics takes place, the paper recommends three readily available metrics: graduate employability, retention and student satisfaction.

Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at UCL Institute of Education and former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, declared:

All metrics are open to manipulation. But these are especially vulnerable. NSS scores are now ruthlessly “gamed”, because of their impact on league tables. Short-term employment rates are not the same as longer-term employability in today’s fractured and volatile labour markets. […] None of these metrics, or any others that might be incorporated […] actually measures teaching excellence. So the TEF cannot do what it says on the tin.

These metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measurements of teaching quality and there are issues around how robust they are. To balance this the paper proposes institutional evidence (i.e. universities will submit their own evidence for their excellent teaching).

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Trojan Horse for raising fees

By far, the one proposal that generated the most uproar is this— Universities who apply and obtain the highest TEF levels would be rewarded by being allowed to further raise their fees, in line with inflation.

It is unclear why institutions with poor teaching should be punished rather than helped. Paul Blackmore, professor of higher education in the International Centre for University Policy Research at the Policy Institute at King’s College London, points out:

The current proposals have an apparent illogicality at their heart: that those institutions that are already excellent should be allowed to charge more. It is not clear why more money is needed when excellence is already being achieved within current funding levels. It would seem more logical to invest additional funds in institutions that need to improve.

The rich will get richer and the poor poorer. — The Matthew Effect

Some have even gone as far as implying that the whole purpose of the paper is to lay the grounds for a nationwide increase in fees. The first stage establishes the principle that institutions can raise fees in line with inflation. The next step would remove this constrain and allow certain universities to arbitrarily raise fees.

Don’t rush it

The House of Commons, through the BIS Committee, released a response to the proposals laid forward in the Green Paper. The committee has recommended BIS to not rush the Teaching Excellence Framework. Iain Wright MP, Chair of the BIS Committee said:

UK Universities have an outstanding international reputation and the Higher Education sector is an area where the UK is a genuine world leader. It’s vital that we capitalise on these strengths and not put the world-class status of our universities at risk by pushing ahead with a poorly implemented or rushed teaching excellence framework.

The discussion continues

The Teaching Excellence Framework aims high. The new proposals are meant to reshape the higher education landscape to put teaching excellence on an equal footing with research. All while delivering better value for money for students, employers and taxpayers.

Finding imperfections in the TEF proposal is easy. It’s more difficult to figure out how to adapt it to truly benefit students, teachers and institutions.

For now, the Government remains quiet. Outside, the discussion continues. The Westminster Higher Education Forum is organising an event on Implementing the Teaching Excellence Framework on the 18th of April. Key stakeholders and policymakers from across the higher education sector will further the debate and shed some light on the challenges and opportunities of TEF.

Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on TEF?


Credit for the first image in the article goes to Mark Hillary.

Robert Dragan is the CEO of Learnium, a social learning platform that connects students and teachers at university or college. To receive updates from the company please subscribe to the Learnium newsletter.