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In a week when the government reshuffled its cabinet, HE issues that made headlines gave the newly-appointed universities minister a taste of things to come, says Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers .
The past week’s events and news are a sign of turbulent times for UK universities, warns Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University.
Mike Ratcliffe, academic registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reflects on issues emerging from a packed week of higher education news.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has reported almost a 21 per cent rise in the number of complaints it received from students last year – rising to their highest ever level at 2,371.
Professor Cam Donaldson, Pro Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal (Research) and Yunus Chair in Social Business & Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, explains how his institution has put into practice a research strategy led by Sustainability Development Goals.
Pressure is growing for the Teaching Excellence Framework to be radically reformed or even scrapped following claims that “a Gold award at one university cannot be compared to the same award at any other university”.
In a strongly worded letter to the statistics regulator, the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) said it was “alarmed” about the “deceptive and misleading” nature of the TEF, branding it a “statistical artefact” that cannot be used as a fair comparison between institutions or courses.
The letter coincided with the RSS's response to the independent review of the TEF, led by Dame Shirley Pearce.
It calls on the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) to investigate whether the TEF contravention of guidance in the regulator’s Code of Practice means it should be abandoned.
Concerns about the TEF, and the subject-level TEF currently under design, have also been raised by Universities UK, MillionPlus, GuildHE and the Universities Alliance. The Russell Group has called for the medal rating system to be scrapped outright.
UUK said it remained “unconvinced that subject-level TEF is viable in its proposed form” and that it could push the cost of the exercise to nearly a quarter of a million pounds per provider.
The gold, silver and bronze ranking of university courses is supposed to be implemented across the sector from this September, following findings from trials and the report of the independent review.
But its development and use of metrics is proving increasingly controversial.
According to the RSS response to the TEF subject-level consultation and the independent review of the TEF, a high level of uncertainty hangs over the medal awards that is not made clear to students.
“The current TEF presentation of provider/subjects as Gold, Silver, Bronze conveys a robustness that is illusory,” it said. “A prospective student might choose a TEF Silver subject at one provider instead of a TEF Bronze at another institution. If they had been told that, statistically, the awards are indistinguishable, then their choice might have been different and, in that sense, TEF is misleading.”
This uncertainty undermines the whole exercise, it claims: “If it turns out that the uncertainty swamps the mean -level award (Gold, Silver, Bronze), then this calls into question whether it is even worth continuing with the TEF.”
The body warns that because “benchmarking” has been put at the heart of the TEF, “statistically, TEF Gold at one institution can not necessarily be compared with TEF Gold awarded to another”.
A lack of transparency in putting the processes and data underlying the TEF fully into the public domain hampers any testing of the assumptions it is based on, according to the RSS.
“At a minimum, we would expect the entire TEF data process pipeline to be published, including as much data that can be released ethically. We have reports of people (in and outside the RSS) trying to understand the TEF data release, but find the accompanying instructions impenetrable. There is a lack of transparency, which is fuelling a perception of lack of integrity,” it said.
Statisticians also raised concerns about a lack of detail on how small sample sizes are going to be handled in subject-level TEF or what happens where metrics are missing or non-reportable.
Deborah Ashby, RSS president, said: "Many prospective university students rely on these rankings to help inform their choices about where to study. We are concerned that the TEF is not reliable enough to bear the weight of this and could be misleading young people making important life choices about where to study."
Mission groups have also complained about the lack of statistical validity of the TEF and the subject level TEF, the inordinate amount of time it will take to collect and submit evidence on the latter and the cost of the exercise.
They argue that current metrics do not measure teaching excellence but are proxies for satisfaction, perception, facilities within universities, employment rates and graduate salaries.
The Russell Group warned that certain subjects, despite being popular or of value, could result in low TEF scores, running the risk of institutions closing them. Universities could also be discouraged from opening new, innovative courses for fear it could result in an initial low score, it added.
In its submission to the independent review, the Russell Group said: “Subject-level TEF should not be taken forward. Instead, efforts should be made to support prospective students to use existing information more effectively through the creation of a new information interface.”
It also recommends replacing the “blunt medal rating system” of the TEF with a “profile approach” which provides much more information about institutional strengths and weaknesses “on a dashboard where informed comparisons can be made”.
Dame Shirley is expected to report her findings on the TEF to the government in the summer.
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