SHAKING UP HIGHER ED – TEF’S SILVER LINING

By Alex Powell

Late last month, we saw the release of the first batch of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results. The TEF has been the subject of significant student opposition, with a Save the Student survey suggesting that as many as 76% of students oppose the implementation of the TEF. I was an opponent of it myself, particularly of links made between TEF scores and the ability of institutions to raise their tuition fees, though this plan has been postponed until 2020.

However, now that I’ve seen the results of the TEF, my opposition has been moderated. I still oppose the use of the TEF as a metric for judging whether to allow fee rises. And I still think that the methodology upon which the TEF is based is far from perfect. But results such as the decision to award silver to elite institutions like Durham while far less illustrious universities like Huddersfield took gold, are very striking. I now see potential in the TEF to shake some of the cobwebs out of UK higher education, and to create an opportunity for institutions with less historical privilege to challenge those traditionally held in higher regard.

huddersfieldU

The University of Huddersfield scored higher in the TEF than many more prestigious institutions. Credit: Chris Charlesworth

Of course, even in this light the TEF isn’t without its problems. One potential pitfall going forward is that the TEF may encourage universities to put more senior academic staff on the frontlines of teaching. While this may superficially seem a good thing, and I certainly think that it is important that senior academic staff continue to have a presence in the classroom, it is also likely to restrict the ability of those staff to work on their world-leading research. Not only does this have both career and satisfaction consequences for the academics themselves, it will also damage the ability of smaller institutions to compete effectively, as universities are also judged on their research through the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

To put it simply, competing in two fields is harder than one. The threat posed by the combination of REF and TEF is that, in an effort to compete and raise themselves up, smaller institutions may find themselves stretched too thin. Smaller institutions simply do not have the finances to hire both first-rate researchers and first-rate teachers, and will instead end up putting extreme pressure on their staff to be both.

Going forward, we need to see more fundamental reforms of higher education

Despite this risk, the TEF does offer potential for change. As one of the few ways in which students can judge universities that isn’t contradicted by an alternative metric (as league tables inevitably are), it gives smaller institutions a chance to show what they can do. It redefines a space in which they can challenge and beat their prestigious and previously arrogant fellows. But it is imperative that they do not stretch themselves too much in the attempt.

All that said, allowing those universities that score above bronze to raise their tuition fees in line with inflation is unlikely to result in any major changes to higher education. Going forward, we need to see more fundamental reforms of higher education. As I have laid out, aspects of the TEF can be seen as steps forward. However, the Higher Education and Research Act simply did not go far enough (and often went miles in the wrong direction). The government has got so many aspects of higher education reform wrong, but maybe there is a way in which we can make the TEF turn out right.

Featured image credit: Šarūnas Burdulis


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