The controversial appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students (OfS) and his subsequent resignation refocused attention on the British government’s approach to higher education policy. Although Young was forced to resign, the OfS is set to ramp up efforts to restructure the university sector.
Postgraduates preparing to enter the academic job market should familiarise themselves with the various systems and benchmarks that govern university practices in the UK. This includes the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which in its current cycle will run through 2021, as well as the nascent Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), announced in late 2017.
The equivalent scheme for teaching is known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In comparison to the highly comprehensive and much-discussed REF, the TEF remains relatively opaque. Although there is uncertainty regarding the future of the exercise, it is likely to become more institutionalised in the coming years. The next iteration of the TEF will be conducted by the OfS, which will replace existing oversight bodies – including the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – in April 2018.
The government’s stated aim is to enhance the competitiveness of the sector by linking teaching quality to future increases in tuition fees. Ostensibly, the TEF gives students the information they need to make more informed decisions about their university applications and attendance.
To quote one expert, however, ‘nobody quite knows what impact the (TEF) ratings will have on student choice’. Scores don’t necessarily align with pre-existing perceptions of value or prestige, and it isn’t entirely clear how the ratings will be interpreted in the UK or overseas.
The TEF: What is it and how does it work?
The TEF has drawn explicit comparisons to Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), the formal inspectorate of schools and nurseries in England. Like Ofsted (and the REF), the TEF is largely data/metrics driven. Unlike Ofsted, the TEF is technically voluntary, although providers that opt out of the scheme are at risk of reputational damage and lost revenue.
The TEF was initiated on a trial basis in 2016, with the first set of scores released in June of 2017. The results grouped institutions into three categories: gold, silver, and bronze. Overall, of the 295 institutions that took part, 59 were rated gold, 116 were rated silver, and 56 were rated bronze, with the rest receiving provisional or incomplete scores.
The results were counterintuitive in some respects, as the more ‘elite’, research-focused institutions which dominate the REF failed to do as well on the TEF. Approximately half of the Russell Group universities, for instance, failed to garner the gold rating.
Following the release of the ratings, universities applying for an upgraded score were able to submit a written narrative articulating their institutional identity and educational philosophy.
The scores themselves were comprised of six metrics drawn from three different sources:
- Students’ views on the quality of teaching, taken from the National Students Survey (NSS)
- Students’ views on assessment and feedback (also from the NSS)
- NSS data on the academic support students receive from staff
- Dropout rates according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency
- Data on whether graduates have moved on to jobs or to further study six months after graduation (taken from the higher education surveys)
- Data on whether students are doing ‘highly skilled’ (graduate-level) work (from the same higher education surveys)
Since the TEF rests heavily on the NSS, it reproduces some of the problems and challenges associated with the survey, which was boycotted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in opposition to the TEF. Among other issues, NSS results can be ‘gamed’ as respondents are incentivised in various ways by their institutions. The NUS also views the TEF as a mechanism to raise tuition fees.
Moving forward, the TEF is expected to introduce subject-level assessments, possibly based on the ‘Unit of Assessment’ categories found in the REF. Pilot programmes are already in place to drill down to the level of individual disciplines. The TEF’s Year 3 subject-level pilots will include a Politics category within the social sciences subject group.
Implications: What does the TEF mean for you?
At present, the TEF does not have a direct bearing on how lecturers fulfil their duties as educators. As the framework is further developed, however, its rules and provisions could eventually impact everything from curriculum design and assessment to the framing of learning outcomes.
In a more robust form, the TEF may constrain and/or incentivise pedagogical practices aligned with particular (consumer-driven) understandings of ‘student satisfaction’. Such an outcome would be consistent with the dominant trends in British politics and academia, which have produced a ‘hyperindustrial university’ in the eyes of some critics.
In the main, the TEF, positioned alongside the REF and KEF, reinforces the marketisation of higher education in the UK. It is evidence of an acceleration of the commercialisation and competitiveness that has defined the sector in recent decades.
The furore surrounding Toby Young and the OfS serves as a reminder that the fierce debates over the future of British universities are unlikely to subside anytime soon. Postgraduate students would be well served to track these issues closely. More to the point, they should actively engage in these debates – not only as a matter of professional development, but also out of obligation to their chosen vocation.
Rubrick Biegon is a research administrator in the School of Politics and IR at the University of Kent, where he has taught modules on international political economy and terrorism and political violence. He is the editorial manager of the BISA journal Review of International Studies and the author of US Power in Latin America: Renewing Hegemony (Routledge, 2017).