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HEi-think: Why medal classifications are wrong for the TEF

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The government's proposals for the outcome of Teaching Excellence Framework metrics and assessments to be represented with the award of bronze, silver and gold status are fundamentally flawed, argues Dr Mike Hamlyn, Director Academic Enhancement at Staffordshire University.


The wait is over, consultation has taken place, and the Department for Education has given birth to “Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification” (see HEi-know Briefing Report 317), based on the Technical Consultation issued by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills in May 2016.

Through that period of consultation, the authors have listened to some of the comments provide by universities and other stakeholders.

One area that was questioned in the original proposal was the rating of outcomes: providers were to be outstanding, excellent or meeting expectations. “Meeting expectations” might work in the language of the quality wonk but not more broadly, and there was lack of clarity between “excellent” and “outstanding”.

So in an Olympic year someone had the idea that all shall have prizes and that providers will be ranked Gold, Silver or Bronze, with the expectation that the distribution should be about 20 per cent achieving Gold, 60 per cent Silver, and 20 per cent Bronze. In fact, everyone who has a successful QAA judgement, automatically gets bronze.

Others have already pointed out that medal classifications don’t really work like this – Tom Daley won a bronze medal this year, because he was the third best in the world, not because he was in the lowest 20 per cent.

And this is going to matter. TEF is about trying to develop the market in higher education, and to create a way in which differential fees can be charged. It is a mechanism that will potentially accelerate growth or decline of providers, and we know that universities minister Jo Johnson believes that HE should make it easier for entry of new providers and exit of existing ones.

Other changes that have been made which the sector will welcome:

  • The commitment to learning from the lessons after the second year of TEF
  • Basing TEF on a much wider range of undergraduate students (including distance learners and part time), unlike the focus of league tables
  • Benchmarking outcomes for employment against disability and social disadvantage
  • Delaying the introduction of TEF for postgraduate until after year 4
  • Eventually providing ratings at subject level – although this may not be granular enough to show the differences between courses in a particular institution

In the short term, the maximum fees that can be charged will not vary between providers, but after year 2 of TEF, then the HE environment, or market, starts to look very different. During 2017 providers will receive their TEF award (which will potentially last for three years), and from autumn 2019 differential fees can be charged. Silver and gold medallists (or TEF ranking holders) can charge 100 per cent of the inflationary uplift, while bronze medallists can charge only 50 per cent.

Immediately, those institutions who are in that bottom 20 per cent are receiving less income per student, and potentially now in a position where they will struggle to find the resource to develop their output metrics. Some of these universities may be the very ones with the highest numbers of widening participation students, the highest numbers of students with a disability, or from a BME background, and with a mission and commitment to using HE to change lives. Despite benchmarking the metrics against the population of the university, these institutions may be the ones who could lose out further on funding.

Look at the metrics to be used. The sector will welcome the fact that assessors will be provided with contextual information, and that scores will be benchmarked and related to the actual student population.

But problem is what the metrics, as described, purport to measure. For example, the NSS scores for teaching quality (questions 1-4) are expected to reflect that “teaching provides effective stimulation challenge and contact time that encourages students to engage and actively commit to their studies”. Similarly, there are TEF assessment criteria about the way in which physical and digital resources are used to aid students’ learning, without actually using the NSS questions on learning resources. NSS is a useful tool in providing course teams with feedback on student satisfaction, but few see it as a tool for measuring teaching quality.

So the written submission now becomes all important. Universities have between late October 2016 and late January 2017 to write their 15 page submission that explains the data, provides the contextual background for the institution, and answers the questions that cannot be answered by metrics alone. It is little surprise that job advertisements are appearing that make specific reference to responsibility for TEF. The stakes are high, and universities are already poring over the tables of indicative metrics that they have been supplied with, so that they can start to craft their written submission. Get it right, win a gold and increase fees and be seen as a winner. Get it wrong, win bronze and see your income decrease relatively. Universities scoring bronze might struggle further to recruit or to bring in students from international markets.

The Olympian ideal, with gold, silver and bronze is all very well, and Team GB performed so well in Rio at both the Olympics and Paralympics, that maybe someone has forgotten that not everyone wins medals – but you still had to be world class to compete.