Carefully laid plans for an article on the TEF (Teaching Excellent Framework) and how students can get involved were dashed this week. Thanks, Department of Education.

It’s been a big week for higher education. The announcement from Amber Rudd on linking student immigration to university rankings came only days after a DoE whitepaper on the TEF. Released last week, this paper outlined how the TEF exercise taking place this year will work in detail when its ranking are announced in May 2017. We can’t talk about both here, so we will stick with the TEF.

While the USA stopped pegging the value of the dollar to gold in 1973, TEF will award university performance with either a Gold, Silver, and Bronze. From the third year of TEF and onward (2019), these rankings will decide whether or not universities raise their fees in line with inflation. Wales, Norther Ireland, and Scotland have been invited to take part, but the results will not affect their ability to charge fees.

If medals seem a little infantile and remind you of those halcyon days of gold stars for coloring between the lines, we agree. Perhaps riding the wave of post-team GB elation, the metallic ranking was chosen because at an initial consultation, OFSTED style rankings of ‘outstanding’, ‘excellent’ and ‘meets expectations’ were deemed too confusing. This ranking system does have the obvious benefit of being blatant.

Perhaps too blatant. While we still laud athletes who come third, we certainly won’t be doing that with the ‘booby bronze’ of the TEF. Bronze will go to universities performing ‘significantly below’ benchmarks. There is no 4th place, apart from those universities that don’t take part in the TEF, thus forfeiting their ability to increase fees. Whether any will do this is unlikely.

In the White Paper, proposed metrics became concrete, and we can tell you exactly what the TEF will use as evidence. The number refers to the aspect of teaching being measured, and the letters to the metric name and source for measurement.

1.      Teaching Quality

a.      Teaching Quality (National Student Survey [NSS] Questions 1-4)

b.      Assessment and Feedback (NSS Questions 5-9)

2.      Learning Environment

a.      Dropout Rates (Data from Higher Education Statistics Agency, [HESA])

b.      Survey Results (NSS Questions 10-12)

3.      Student Outcome and Learning Gain

a.      Graduate Employment Rates after 6 months of graduation (including % who go onto high skill jobs) (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education [DHLE] Survey)

We used reflections from the Slow Movement to give our thoughts these metrics for graduate employment, and student satisfaction two weeks ago, so they don’t need to be revisited, save to say that measuring how many graduates secure a 'High Skill Job' is going to be fairly predictable of which disciplines (humanities) will not be seen to be pulling their weight, and what careers services are going to push students towards (graduate recruiters). Leaving aside a broader question about whether the momentous decision to leave a university is clearly related to its teaching quality, dropout rates are worth elaborating upon.

The decision to leave university is made annually by about 6% of young first-degree entrants, one of the lowest in Europe, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement and HESA data. It’s about 2% higher for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and herein lies the danger of this TEF metric. Universities who recruit heavily from a lower socio-economic cohort will be penalized by the TEF. If they do badly, they may not be able to increase fees, so their students will suffer. Compare dropout rates for London Metropolitan University (18.9%) to the University of Cambridge (1.1%). A divided higher education system striated by socio-economic demographics is not implausible.

The government has apparently anticipated this and suggested universities that do recruit from these cohorts will be assessed fairly by using ‘contextual data’ such as average income, ethnicity and entry qualifications of students. We will have to wait for the first rankings next year to see how much wiggle room contextual data allows different institutions are allowed. Furthermore, if some people feel that university is not for them, do we really want to see universities doing everything then can to encourage or force them to stay? Will those who excuse themselves suddenly find themselves facing arduous admin and cancellation fees like in phone contracts?

The White Paper also reveals that universities will be encouraged to submit supplemental data to support their case. It outlines the criterion that could be used by a panel of assessors to evaluate a university. For example, assessors will be looking for the value an institution places on teaching. This will be good news for staff happy who prefer it to research, and students who feel staff don’t care about teaching. A TEF panel will also examine ‘student engagement’ and ‘involvement in scholarly practice’. Both these suggest a nice focus on getting students involved more, and are more consistent with the Slow Movement because they force a university to stop and reflect on how they currently do student engagement. We just wish they were core metrics as well as core assessment criterion.

The biggest win is that institutions will have to show how they have engaged students in the actual TEF process and submission. We will be writing more on how departments could create programs that implement this effectively next week.