Out of the REF comes the TEF
It may only seem like yesterday that the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) was forged out of an apparent desire to equate the status of teaching at British universities with research, but the pace has not abated. Now, as universities anxiously await the results of TEF 2.0, which will clarify their ranking according to an achievement table of gold, silver and bronze awards, what will any of this ultimately mean for the long-term success of our students? As the REF has demonstrated, there is a clear distinction to be made between the production of research data and any ability or tangible possibility to quantify its quality in real terms. Thus the rise in three- and four-star journal articles has mirrored the debates that have erupted over decades during the annual announcement of record numbers of students gaining five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. In addition, there remains some doubt as to whether or not the REF has actually driven up the quality of research or simply become a means of distributing funding across the sector. Defining standards is a problematic business to be in and even more so when it comes to setting out the context in which the quality of teaching might be measured. While this might explain why both the TEF and the REF are so metrics driven, it does little to throw any light on just how the range of data gathering involved in submitting to the process helps to either quantify the real quality of teaching or the continued success of students.
The TEF and student success
The TEF has become increasingly associated with the term ‘student success’, something that mirrors the merger of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) with the newly established Office for Students (OfS), signalling a shift from provider to consumer. However, what this means for the sector remains an unknown with new providers coming into the arena with the potential to offer cheaper and more flexible provision while the Russell Group is likely to see a boost in its recruitment while maintaining a strong line on its standards. Just how the semblance of choice will ultimately facilitate student success remains an unanswered question as will the somewhat flexible and slippery definition of the term itself.
Student success for those involved in the active recruitment of undergraduate students, for example, might mean something very different to someone who is leading a team of postgraduate research students on a project. In recent years, ‘student engagement’ has surfaced as a clear indicator of success to such a degree where the terms are often used interchangeably. Indeed, the evidence has been clear for some time that the most engaged students (with their union, clubs, and communities) are also the most academically successful in terms of their ultimate class of degree. The TEF is set to quantify success by metrics that have clear data sources with which the sector is only too familiar (good honours, destination of leavers etc.) as they have both been vital components of the formation of league tables over the past ten years. However, at the Universities UK conference in 2016, Universities Minister Jo Johnson drew a link between teaching quality “and outcomes from it” in a speech that saw student success more broadly conceived of as social mobility. It is also worth remembering that social mobility looms large at least in the title of the Higher Education white paper (Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice) although the how of social mobility does present a fundamental problem for the HE sector with its long history of talking the talk but not exactly walking the walk in this regard.
Social mobility, like recycling and a love for the National Health Service, is one of those inalienable beliefs that are almost universally subscribed to across the whole political spectrum. The Russell Group, the UK’s premier league of universities, has paid lip service to inclusive recruitment practices for decades with only variable rates of achievement across its membership. The Social Mobility Commission, in a report that makes no reference to the TEF, recently drew attention to a situation where poorer applicants remain disadvantaged by the Russell Group with more affluent students 3.6% more likely to get a place and almost 7% failing to get in despite holding equivalent grades. Clearly, there is much still to be done across the whole sector to facilitate the success of this particular cohort of students,
Talking to students, something I have the pleasure to do on a daily basis, and a different set of priorities emerges where student success becomes quantified in completely different ways from those set out in the TEF. While students, particularly in the final year of an undergraduate degree, become more concerned about their routes to employment or further study, more significantly they highlight their sense of success as being more significant when it emanates from a qualitative experience with their lecturers, a strong identity with their institution, and a direct personal involvement with a range of institution-oriented activities. Student Unions have a clear role to play here in supporting their membership and encouraging participation. Producing students who act as responsible members of our democracy, who are thus able to make a positive contribution to society and see collaboration as a primary act of participation are fundamental to our students’ success and are worthy of consideration in terms of the planning and delivery of teaching that move beyond the informational and competitive metrics of the TEF. A more collaborative approach between universities and their Student Unions affords the opportunity to grow real student success in ways that have clear societal benefits in an era when both democracy and collaboration are posed with new threats and the Academy itself becomes a soft target for anti-intellectualism.