Universities, don't rest on your laurels – use the Tef to improve

Chris Husbands

The teaching excellence framework may be controversial, but it’s an important resource for understanding and improving university teaching

The teaching excellence framework (Tef) results give us a unique insight into teaching quality and student outcomes across what is now an extraordinarily diverse higher education system. The Tef team is not only publishing the results, but all the data on which the assessment was based. No higher education system in the world has hitherto released such a fabulous resource for understanding teaching. Universities should use the results creatively to help them ask tough questions about what they do.

An impressive 295 institutions submitted for Tef assessment, including large multi-faculty universities and specialist institutions, research-intensive and teaching-intensive universities, further education colleges offering higher education and alternative providers. The outcomes draw together the results of an assessment of teaching excellence across all these types of institution based on evaluation of a set of statistical metrics, benchmarked for institution type and student mix, alongside an institutional submission of approximately 10,000 words.

As Tef chair, I’m perhaps more aware than anyone that the Tef has its critics, who argue that it’s wrong to try to evaluate something as complex as teaching. I have some sympathy – I’m an educationist and I know just how complex teaching is. But I am also aware that students, who are now investing significant sums of money and personal risk in their higher education, are interested in precisely the things the Tef measures: how likely are they to secure a highly skilled job? How successful are universities and colleges at retaining students? How effective do students at each institution think the assessment and feedback is? How successful are universities and colleges with students from different backgrounds and ethnic groups? These are valid questions, and we have the data to answer them – not crudely, but carefully benchmarked.

There are others who accept the principle of assessing teaching performance but argue that the chosen metrics are inadequate proxies for what really matters. As a social scientist, I know that almost all social statistics are flawed and that all need careful analysis. The challenge for those who argue that the Tef uses the wrong metrics is to offer sensible alternatives to the national student survey (NSS) and the analysis of graduate destinations. To date, critics have not been able to suggest any. When I talk to fellow vice-chancellors about the NSS – itself established for over a decade – they are pretty clear that it provides them with a useful tool for addressing areas that require improvement.

So what does the Tef tell us? Alongside the recently published Longitudinal Education Outcomes data on salaries and employment and the pilot studies of learning gain at university, it is part of an increased focus on outcomes for students. In the past, universities have thought more about inputs (such as staff and technology), processes (such as curriculum and assessment) and outputs (such as degree classifications). The focus on outcomes is a potential game changer which needs to shape the way universities think. Not because outcomes are all that matter, but because, in a mass higher education system, they do matter.

At the core of Tef is a strategic clarity about outcomes: it directs attention to a critical relationship between institutional policies – the arrangements autonomous universities make for students, institutional practices (which are not the same as policies) and student outcomes. It requires universities to think hard about the impact of what they do and how they evaluate it.

Institutions that did best, wherever they are in the sector, grasped this with coherent and compelling ways to describe that relationship. The very best submissions were simply a joy to read, conveying a rich, vibrant learning experience which, among other things, engaged and stretched students, extending their sense of what is possible and orienting them to success beyond university or college. This success was distributed across the sector – it is independent of institutional reputation, age, subject makeup or regional location.

The Tef panel was required – rightly – by the published specification to focus on the way higher education meets the needs of the most disadvantaged. This was one of the most revealing parts of the exercise. It is one where almost everyone has things to learn – often from some of the institutions facing the most difficult challenges, working with marginalised groups in unprepossessing settings.

In the last 20 years, all universities and colleges have demonstrated their success on widening participation in higher education, but this is not enough. What is important is to close gaps in attainment, to secure success beyond enrolment. Few submissions were systematic on the ways in which disadvantage is addressed, and how they act to close performance gaps amongst groups of students. As an educationist whose research expertise has been in schools, it strikes me that universities have much to learn in the way they address disadvantage.

The Tef has been controversial. But it marks a striking advance for the sector: focused on outcomes and the processes which produce them, it is also a way of further raising the profile of one of the most important things all universities do – teaching.

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