Teaching Excellence Frameworks, and other things to think about over the summer

This measures everything. Everything.

One of the mutterings that has flitted about the HE sector here in the UK in recent months has been the idea of a Teaching Excellence Framework, an equivalent of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that has either come, or is coming, to your local university.

As with REF, the idea would be to use a range of metrics to identify, measure and encourage high quality learning & teaching. That might include completion rates, ‘value added’, dissemination of good practice and case studies of innovation and general excellence.

The idea is one that got a big boost last week, when the new government announced that it would allow British universities to increase their fees if their teaching was of high quality.

Now you might imagine that I’d be all for that, since I could write an impact case study already now and my institution does very well in L&T metrics.

However, I find myself being deeply ambivalent about it all.

In part, that ambivalence is driven by my general concern about any one-size-fits-all approach, especially because – just as in research – there are very many ways to make a useful contribution and (conversely) just as many ways to not capture that. How do you compare a MOOC with lab work with a simulation?

But it also comes from a concern about the abstraction of L&T from its context.

When I run a module, I run it with the particular group of students in mind. Each class or session finds me (like it would most colleagues) trying to adapt the material to meet the needs of the students as we progress. Most mundanely, the confused face will prompt us to rework some section, to unpack it and help that confusion pass. Less mundanely, I might rework an entire module to accommodate the needs of a group (as indeed I will be doing this summer).

In REF, individual researchers submit four pieces of work for peer-evaluation: this forms the bulk of the work, alongside some elements dealing the research environment and its wider impact.

In a TEF, it’s inconceivable that we’d do the same: I submit my four best students? My four best modules? My four best sessions?

No, there’d be a bunch of metrics at programme or departmental or university level, describing some of those things I’ve mentioned above. Then there’d be some kind of case study approach.

This anonymises – or, rather, depersonalises – what we do. As a useful piece by John Canning points out, a TEF might start out with good intentions, but quickly institutions would move towards playing the game and optimising the metrics.

This already happens: institutions in the UK spend a lot of time and effort in trying to improve their league table rankings and that includes targeting poorly-performing indicators. That’s not a bad thing – my own university now has much better systems for supporting students who might fail modules, for instance – but the tendency is always to focus on the metric, rather than the students themselves.

I appreciate that in all of this, I’m just the sort of person who should be getting involved, as someone who cares about, and has a substantial job role in, L&T. So I’m going to try to use my ambivalence to good effect. That’s why I’m going to try and be part of the discussion about TEF wherever I can, so that even if it’s not perfect, it will still be less imperfect than otherwise. And I’d say the same to colleagues: rather than just grumble about what’s being done to you, try and shape it.

All that said, I’m about to have a couple of weeks of not thinking about work at all. Doubtless I’ll return with some moment of inspiration from my break, but I really wouldn’t hold your breath. See you on the other side.