TEF rolls on

Did I mention it’s Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo, who is in charge of this?

I’ve written before about TEF and its various problems. You’ve delighted to read that despite many such critiques, the government is pressing on with this, in a broadly unchanged form.

The Framework will still try to differentiate universities by their teaching, initially at institutional level and then by broad discipline groups (e.g. social sciences for politics).And to measure the quality of the teaching, it’ll measure…um…not teaching itself, but a bunch of other metrics, like progression rates, student satisfaction and graduate employment.

With British universities currently in a bit of a tizz about Brexit, TEF has not had the kind of focused opposition that might have been anticipated, and the government doesn’t seem to be in the mood to spend too long consulting on it either. TEF 1 is happening this academic year, and TEF 2 probably next year, despite the need to give effect to all the necessary policies, procedures and metrics.

As one of my colleagues has noted, this makes it a great teaching moment for students, to understand how public policy occurs and is formulated, albeit in a ‘learning from likely failure’ kind of way.

But beyond this, as has been noted by various commentators of late, the issue is not so much the TEF per se, but institutions’ responses to it. As with all regulation, incentives are created that may – or may not – align with the ultimate intent of the policy.

In the case of TEF, it strikes me as a convenient collision of two broad agendas. The first is the increasing awareness in Higher Education that teaching matters and that the benign neglect of the past has probably not been that benign: more crudely, some universities worry they’ll lose market share if their teachign doesn’t match up to the their research profile.

The second is the funding bottleneck that government has created with past policy. The switch to fees, and the political inability/unwillingness to uncap those fees, has meant that HE funding has contracted, even at a time when economic modernisation suggests that highly-skilled workforces are very desireable.

TEF is essentially a quid pro quo between these two ideas: using the improvement of standards to break the fees cap. And by focusing on metrics that already exist, it can be relatively low-cost, low-impact as a process.

Of course, in practice TEF has grown into a much more complex beast, as those involved in L&T has tried to get more meaningful measures of teaching quality included, alongside recognition of the myriad differences between different bits of ‘university education’.

The resultant messy policy – as far as we have it – suggests that we need to keep two basic ideas in mind as those of us at the operational end of things get to grips with it.

The first is that we need to be very alive to institutional pressures to game the metrics. Some of those things are within our control, but many are not. Universities will come under pressure to select students who perform well in the chosen subject and then go into graduate positions straight away. With many politics graduates heading into internships that don’t hit this second part – even if they are excellent gateways to later career opportunities – that might make universities less keen to expand intakes in our field.

The second is that we also need to recognise the limits to our agency. At this stage, only some genuinely catastrophic event would stop TEF – even a different government would do little more than tinker with the basic idea, for the reasons outlined above. That means we need to put more effort into making sure we don’t put ourselves into harm’s way.

This doesn’t have to mean loving the TEF and all it does, but rather understanding what it involves and how we might use it to pursue the idea that I’m going to assume we all share of providing good learning environments for our students, whatever they’re like. The more we can focus on that, the better for all involved.