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As the Higher Education and Research Bill resumes its passage through parliament, Professor Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and Chair of the Teaching Excellence Framework panel, outlines the thinking behind designing the TEF and the challenges and opportunities this presents.
I went to university in 1977. Ninety-four percent of those who were born in the same year as me did not go on to higher education. Around the world, that’s changing: higher education has undergone a transformation.
Increasingly, higher education systems are mass systems. Participation rates – notoriously difficult to calculate with precision given the structure of different systems and enrolment practices – are rising around the world. In the UK, something over a third of eighteen year olds go on to university. The figure is higher in the United States, Canada and Korea, and rising fast in China and Africa. We are living in an age of mass participation.
Almost everything governments around the world are doing in relation to their higher education systems flows from this remarkable phenomenon. They are working out how to fund, regulate, manage and quality assure their higher education systems.
The Teaching Excellence Framework is one part of the UK government’s response: seeking to give students, employers, and universities themselves a clearer steer on shaping teaching quality, and rewarding universities who are systematically stronger. There has, of course, been a performance assessment framework for research since 1986 when the Research Selectivity Exercise – the precursor to the REF – was introduced. There are many observers who have commented that it is perverse to assess one of the two principal pre-occupations of universities and not the other.
Designing the Teaching Excellence Framework is by no means easy. Teaching – as we all know, because we have all experienced it – is difficult to describe. The outline approach for the Teaching Excellence Framework is realistic about this. It does not pretend to be a direct audit of the quality of teaching. Instead, it uses a range of evidence to construct a framework within which to make an assessment – looking at a range of data on teaching quality, learning environments and student outcomes.
Higher education generates a vast amount of data, including the now well-established National Student Survey and the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education. The TEF technical consultation proposes the collation of a set of core metrics from already existing data sets, and the deployment of institutional benchmarks derived from them as a way map patterns.
My own sense is that as the system matures, the metrics will also mature, but it is difficult to argue that teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes are not the right places to look to make an assessment. These core metrics, over three year data series will be supplemented by further data exploring how effectively provision caters for disadvantaged groups, and a fifteen page submission in which the university can provide further contextual data. The intention is to balance core metrics, contextual information and peer review, undertaken by trained, experienced assessors and overseen by a panel of academics, students and employers, which I will chair.
The development of the Teaching Excellence Framework is a huge opportunity for the sector to reaffirm one of the values which unite higher education - a commitment to provision of the highest quality – and to do so in a context in which, as I’ve written elsewhere, universities matter more, to more people, than has ever been the case before.
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