Will the TEF become the Teaching Excellence Farce?

The volume is cranking up on the debates and discussion surrounding the much-hyped Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). It  hasn’t, however, yet reached ’11’, as academic commentators are, generally, far too polite to shout too loudly. However, it is difficult to discern many, or any, supportive voices among the doubters, nay-sayers and doom-merchants.

Those of us who have, for years, focused on enhancing learning and teaching in higher education (alongside research), to raise the status of university teaching (alongside research), to reward and recognise excellent teaching (alongside research), find ourselves in a difficult position. We already have had several rounds of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and still face the REF (Research Excellence Framework) , so why not, in the name of parity of esteem, develop and implement a TEF?

To the neutral observer it sounds perfectly reasonable.  Students, especially now that they’re not only paying ‘customers’ but also judgemental ones via the NSS and various institutional feedback mechanisms, deserve to be not only treated well but also taught well. There is clear evidence that a significant number of students feel let down or even ripped off. While many feel that they are not getting value for money, they do value expert teachers and teaching above other factors such as research reputation.  So, in order to ensure teaching standards are maintained there needs to be a) an agreed standard, and b) a mechanism for assessing whether that standard is achieved or not.

So, what and where are the problems?

Peter Scott, in The Guardian (3 Nov), provided three:

  • The TEF will be based on existing metrics e.g. NSS scores, drop-out rates, graduate employment rates, etc. However, as we’ve seen with the NSS and to some extent the REF, all metrics are open to manipulation and being ‘gamed’, especially when league tables and money are at stake.
  • None of the metrics being proposed actually measure excellent teaching.
  • Most serious of all: the TEF will be designed/manipulated to ensure that the ‘elite’ institutions will benefit at the expense of the rest of the sector. There is no way the government will allow those elite, research-intensive institutions to be seen as lacking in the teaching department. As Scott writes: “The result will be an extreme expression of the Matthew principle – the rich will get richer and the poor poorer. The TEF’s cocktail of metrics will favour the “top” universities so they will accumulate more in fees. They will be able to afford better facilities, more favourable staff-student ratios and attract even more students able to ease their way into employment through internships.”

Here are some more challenges:

  • The teaching excellence ‘kitemark’ will be awarded to the institution as a whole. But everyone knows that the quality of teaching in an institution can vary enormously between and within faculties, departments and even courses.
  • The TEF, like many higher education strategies and policies, is based on the assumption that HE is ‘played’ on a single ‘level playing field’. This is an illusion. In fact there are several different level playing fields. For example, the large, research-intensive universities play on their playing field, while the small, specialist dance/drama/music institutions play on theirs. It’s not a matter of better or worse; it’s a matter of difference. Similarly, approaches to teaching differ significantly between institutions, and disciplines. How, for example, might one compare the intensive, small group or even individual face-to-face, studio-based teaching that occurs in an arts conservatoire with the traditional large group lecture and seminar approach that may take up no more than a few hours a week? In a number of cases those two very different approaches occur in the same institution. The danger is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ TEF will actually fit only a select few.

The TEF is on its way. Its arrival is imminent and unavoidable. The haste with which it has been ‘designed’ – though good, intelligent design will have played little or no part in it – will undoubtedly lead to absurdities and incongruities that would be funny if the whole thing wasn’t so damn serious and potentially damaging.

We have to hope that the TEF doesn’t become the Teaching Excellence Farce.

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Author: Paul Kleiman

Academic, researcher, writer, musician, gardner, narrowboat owner, dog owner, cat servant

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