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Welcome to the higher education rollercoaster

UK higher education had more than its fair share of ups and downs over the past week. Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence at Prospects, charts the highs and lows.

Universities must re-think recruitment strategies as rules change on unconditional offers

As the Office for Students places a moratorium on ‘conditional unconditional offers’, Jon Scott, HE consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester, reviews the context of the decision and considers its implications.

HEi-know Good Practice Briefing: UK universities describe "amazing" shift to online delivery

Universities across the UK have rapidly moved their learning, teaching and assessment online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented overhaul of traditional teaching practices has presented a major challenge to institutions, staff and students. In this Good Practice Briefing, HEi-know shows how some universities have responded to the situation.

World events highlight stark inequalities in HE

Sutton Trust associate director of media and communications Hilary Cornwell and research and policy assistant Maariyah Dawood comment on equality and widening access issues that have emerged in a week of higher education news.

Government and employers must match HE’s positive moves on equality

Reviewing a week of higher education news, Action on Access Director Andrew Rawson celebrates positive action on equality and social inclusivity taken in the HE sector and calls for matching support from the government and employers.

HEi-think: Getting to grips with the TEF challenge

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.

Professor Chris Husbands
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