With the release of the Government’s White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has well and truly arrived. As Universities transition into the TEF year one and cross a teaching Rubicon for Higher Education in the UK, intense discussions will no doubt continue about the merit of metrics, the purpose of the exercise and the application of the outcomes. Putting to one side for a moment these threshold debates, I want to look forward in order to take this opportunity to consider the possibilities for the TEF in year three and scan the educational horizon for teaching excellence that is firmly located in the disciplines. For me, this is where the TEF has most meaning – for students and staff alike.
While there are a number of factors that influence a student’s choice of University, from reputation to location, the day-to-day experience of the majority of teaching is grounded in the programme of study.
Excellent teaching – even at a distance or at scale – is experienced and gauged locally and individually within a subject context. At the same time, granular analysis of teaching excellence within disciplines, subject areas or units is the most compelling way ‘to build a culture where teaching has equal status with research’ (Jo Johnson, 1 July 2015).
As a way forward, I am an advocate of fostering a stronger sense of ownership of the process within academic teams. Just as ownership of the educational process improves student engagement and outcomes, the same will be true for staff if the TEF is local, embedded and connected to professional practice.
Sir Anthony Seldon’s engaging piece on the TEF for the Social Market Foundation makes this point succinctly: ‘By making motivation intrinsic, rather than external and heavy-handed, resistance is reduced and genuine commitment to good teaching enhanced’ (Seldon 2016, 47).
Intrinsic forces that flow from an affinity for a subject are always more powerful motivators than extrinsic interventions. Recognition for a commitment to good teaching within HE has been witnessed through the HEA’s National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS), as the assessment criteria measure individual teaching excellence that is grounded in everyday practice. This also reinforces the importance of the professional status of teaching, not just within a broader University context, but specifically within individual academic specialisms.
To recognise and appraise teaching excellence effectively, the disciplinary milieu and distinctions need to be teased out in order to make the method of assessment formative, authentic and aspirational. Well trained and supported expert panels and assessors need the opportunity to define teaching excellence within a subject context in order to engage staff and students in the process of quality assessment and enhancement. The subject-level metrics and case for excellence must be formed and experienced locally so that meaningful comparisons can be made that will inform student choice.
Careful management of the process is required to navigate a path that is sensitive to the ‘high fidelity’ metrics – that provide coherence and reliability – for the TEF in years one and two, but more mindful of ‘low fidelity’ metrics that will speak more eloquently to the disciplines in year three and beyond.
The common, high fidelity metrics in the opening years of the TEF match the policy and sector agenda, but they will not be the most effective measure in the disciplines. While the metrics for years one and two will provide broad-brush consistency, they may inhibit subject-level innovation and engagement – the very tenets of teaching excellence that the TEF will embrace. The significance of the disciplinary pilot studies identified in the White Paper cannot be overstated, as they will test and benchmark the assessment of teaching excellence and frame future iterations of the TEF.
An effective blend of high and low fidelity metrics that responds to the needs of individual disciplines is of paramount importance as we move further into the TEF cycle. This will encourage differentiation within the sector that is advanced by teaching excellence within the disciplines; specialist areas of outstanding practice; centres for teaching excellence; and a professionalization of teaching that draws upon the intrinsic passion of academic staff for their subject area.
So, while the current threshold debates have merit, the sector should consider how the future of the TEF will develop and not lose sight of the opportunities that are provided through the TEF at a subject level.
Managed and supported prudently, this subject-level assessment has the potential to bring significant benefits for students as they select their degrees and also for staff, by offering a more powerful driver for professional and career development that will enhance the quality of teaching in the disciplines.
Dr Ben Brabon is Academic Lead at the HEA with responsibility for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr Brabon’s pedagogic research on quality assurance has been cited by David Willetts and he has worked with the QAA, HEFCE and the Swedish Ministry of Education in this area.