The teaching excellence framework technical consultation: where next for TEF?

This week the Government released its higher education white paper, “Success as a knowledge economy”, outlining significant changes to university education and research in the UK.

Britisih Ecological Society Funding image of a bee hive

In the second of two posts, we consider the implications of the white paper for teaching. The first post focused on the implications for research.

The technical consultation for the Teaching Excellence Framework was published this week, alongside the publication of the Government’s higher education white paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy. The consultation is running from 16 May until 12 July 2016 and we in the BES Policy team will be liaising with members and feeding into the Royal Society of Biology’s response.

The consultation, which needs to be read with the white paper, sets out proposals for how the TEF will operate in Year Two (meaning 2017/18, applying to 2018/19). The majority of this consultation focuses on the contentious issue of what metrics will be used to measure teaching excellence as well as setting out the assessment process. The white paper then sets out the timeframe for linking TEF to tuition fees; implementation has been somewhat slowed from the initial timeline set out in the previous higher education green paper.

Although not all the metrics will come into force until Year Four of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) (2019/20 applying to 2020/21), higher education (HE) institutions are being encouraged to enter into the TEF in Year Two. By doing so they will be the first to receive an award of ‘Meets Expectations’, ‘Excellent’ or ‘Outstanding’. Institutions are guaranteed to achieve the minimum of ’Meets Expectations’, as long as they meet the requirements of the broader quality assurance system. The incentive for entering into TEF is they can take advantage of ‘full inflationary uplift to fees’ (i.e. HE institutions will be able to increase fees in line with inflation in Year Two).

However, Year Three of TEF onwards (2018/19 applying to 2019/20) will see the introduction of ‘differentiated fee cap and loan cap increases’. This means that HE institutions awarded a rating of ‘Meets Expectations’ will be eligible for 50% of the inflationary uplift. Those achieving a rating of ‘Excellent or Outstanding’ will be eligible for 100% of the inflationary uplift. If a HE institution’s TEF level award drops, they will be required to lower the fees they charged, including for existing students. Therefore, HE institutions maintaining ‘Excellent or Outstanding’ can raise their fees in line with inflation but as now, any changes to fee caps beyond inflation will need to be approved by Parliament.

In the Royal Society of Biology’s response to the green paper on Higher Education we stated our concerns about fees being associated with an award for teaching excellence. Our concerns still stand that ‘a differential, tiered fee system…will likely have a detrimental impact on widening participation and associated social mobility, international competitiveness, teaching standards and sector diversity.’  While the tie between merit and fees still remains, there has been some progression as now the changes to fees and the potential increase will be phased in slower than originally indicated in the green paper.

Metrics for teaching excellence?

As it currently stands the metrics determining an institution’s TEF grade will be measured against three core criteria: teaching quality; learning environment; and employment outcomes and learning gain. Sources of evidence to inform the metrics will still include the National Student Survey, proportion of graduates in employment/ further education from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, and retention rates. Institutions will also be able to submit further quantitative and qualitative evidence to a panel.  In Year Three further metrics of weighted contact hours and teaching intensity, as well as a ‘highly skilled’ employment metric will be trialled. This technical consultation is seeking evidence on these undeveloped metrics.

Many of our original concerns about the use of metrics to assess teaching quality still stand: the core metrics proposed are not direct measures of teaching excellence. The technical consultation document even recognises flaws in the core metrics. For example, ‘Student Outcomes and Learning Gain criteria’, will measure occupation 6 months after graduation but that this “may distort the results if students with particular characteristics take longer to transition into long-term career occupations”.  As highlighted in our response to the green paper, six months does not take into consideration a typical career route for an ecology graduate.

However, we do recognise that the inclusion of peer review and ability to submit supporting evidence does move towards a framework that can be more flexible in recognising the importance of varying teaching methods across disciplines. The peer reviews will be carried out by an independent panel of academic experts, students and employer representatives who will judge applications. This does add a much needed human element into the process. Nonetheless, we are still concerned about the administrative impacts of submitting evidence on teaching academics, and their time left for preparing for and teaching students.

A few other key points worth noting include:

  • Ratings will be awarded at the level of the HE institution until Year Four, after which and depending on the findings of a pilot in Year Three, ratings will be introduced at a disciplinary-level. This is the level which will be of most use and importance to applicants.
  • After an initial three year term, HE institutions should retain the TEF awards for five years unless concerns are raised, there are changes in ownership or the institute is seeking a higher award level.
  • Universities will be required to publish the gender, ethnicity and social backgroundsof their student they take in.
  • HE institutions in the devolved administrations are able to participate in the first year if they want and BIS will work with the devolved nations ensure TEF develops in a compatible manner. The ambition is also for TEF to roll out to postgraduate taught courses in Year Four (2019/20 applying to 2020/21).

We will continue to engage with this issue, working with the Royal Society of Biology and others, and are keen to hear from members. Please get in touch to let us know your views on the metrics and / or the questions in the technical consultation.