Despite having its origins in policy specific to England, there are few topics that have generated as much discussion in Scottish Higher Education as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Now that the Scottish Government have given their consent for institutions from Scotland to participate in this first year of TEF should they wish, these discussions have taken on new significance. While stimulating a positive debate around teaching quality, the TEF has raised many concerns. Let me explain why.
At Glasgow, like all other Scottish HEI’s, we are subject to the Scottish Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF). The move away from an audit-focused quality assurance culture in 2003 to an enhancement-focused approach really challenged the sector and arguably it took us about ten years to really understand how to make this work. The external perspective is often that the QEF is a light touch approach in which Scottish institutions ‘get off lightly’. Our experience is quite the opposite. I would argue that our quality assurance processes are now more robust than they ever were under the audit-focused regime. An audit culture can encourage stasis and risk aversion whereas an enhancement focus challenges you to continually reflect on your practice and to seek to improve. The reality though is that enhancement can only happen if the base quality assurance processes are as robust and as effective as they can be. This creates a need to evaluate and evolve these processes in a way that simply didn’t happen when compliance was the key driver.
So, why did I mention the QEF? Quite simply, it shapes the way we think about teaching quality. At Glasgow this thinking pervades both the University Strategy and the supporting Learning and Teaching Strategy. Central to both is a world-class student learning experience ensured though our commitment to enhancement. We review, reflect on and develop our teaching practice, processes and facilities to engage our students in innovative, relevant and challenging curricula. We recognise and reward excellent teaching and support this through the development and professional recognition of our staff. So, surely, the TEF is a perfect fit with all of this and Scotland should simply leap into the TEF with two feet?
It really all depends on how the TEF evolves. A TEF level 1 based on quality audit may be fundamentally incompatible with the QEF. The QEF places expectations that go well beyond compliance and I would argue that elements of our Enhancement Led Institutional Review (ELIR) process align well with the emerging expectations of TEF level 2 or beyond. So, the way in which the elements of the QEF would be recognised within the TEF would really matter to us. Although I can’t speak for my colleagues in other Scottish HEI’s, I suspect that we would not be averse to looking at how the QEF could evolve to align with TEF provided that the fundamental focus on enhancement in Scotland was not lost and there was recognition that the ELIR outcomes go beyond TEF level 1.
Then there is the thorny issue of metrics. The generally voiced concern that the parameters which lend themselves to evaluation through metrics are often the poorest proxy for teaching excellence, is a common discussion topic. For me, this is fundamental to getting the TEF right. If we end up with a series of measures that align to political imperatives rather than truly reflecting teaching excellence, we will have the worst of all worlds. The way we respond to the technical consultation will be important in shaping thinking on this.
For Scotland the issue of metrics is even more complex because our degrees differ in duration and structure from elsewhere in the UK. As a consequence, a particular metric may be inherently biased by these differences. In addition, because Education is devolved, government policies may differ and this can, again, create very different outcomes if the metrics do not reflect this. A simple example of this would be the use of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) to measure widening access in Scotland rather than the POLAR methodology used by HEFCE.
What is the likely outcome for Scotland? If we do nothing, there are multiple dangers that would be difficult to avoid. For example, TEF is likely to become visible beyond the UK and would then inevitably become a factor in international recruitment. It may appear strange for a UK university not to feature in the TEF and it could become worse still for Scotland if external funding agencies aligned scholarships to TEF outcomes with no recognition of the Scottish situation. TEF could also feature in UK league tables and, if Scotland does nothing, we may find ourselves being scored via some limited proxy that would be unlikely to provide a level playing field. The implications of this for UK and International recruitment could again be significant for some Scottish universities. For these reasons Universities Scotland has committed to “engaging actively and constructively in the development of the TEF to secure a route to accreditation at all levels that is different but equivalent and builds on our existing, distinctive quality arrangements.”
There is no guarantee that this can be achieved but there is a strong feeling here that it is the right approach for Scotland to follow. Interesting times ahead!
Professor Frank Coton is Vice Principal (Academic & Educational Innovation) at the University of Glasgow