Three-D Issue 29: Reflections on our future with the Teaching Excellence Framework

Many MeCCSA members will have their own perspective on the potential impacts of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) upon Media, Communication and Cultural Studies. Indeed, TEF-related sooth-saying has become a popular occupation in the corridors and refectories of universities across the land. I have been invited to offer some thoughts on TEF, written by a Principal Lecturer at a Silver-awarded post-92 university.

Many MeCCSA members will know that TEF is going to be applied at a subject level, based upon the new thirty-five strong Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS – the new JACS). This data will be compiled and processed to give each HE provider a TEF rating: bronze, silver, or gold, and potential applicants will be able to see how subject areas compare nationally in terms of teaching excellence. While a year-or-so ago it was suggested that TEF ratings would control whether an institution could raise fees with inflation, this is no longer the case, instead it is more useful to consider TEF as something that will influence reputation, student recruitment, and institutional policy. MeCCSA colleagues will likely find their subject TEF scores calculated in combination with colleagues whose degrees fall within either communication and mediaSociology, social policy and anthropology, or Humanities and liberal arts (non specific). The point here is that TEF will bring about change to the ways that our disciplines are understood and perceived. TEF is likely to impose new boundaries between disciplines, impact upon student recruitment and institutional policy, and in the midst of all of this change, somehow open up opportunities to recognise and celebrate excellent teaching.

Despite all the talk of subject-level TEF over the last twelve months, the tensions associated with the availability of such granular data may prove to be somewhat of a distraction. While this subject-level data will certainly complement the already abundant DLHE and Unistats information that students use to make their choices about selecting programmes, it is the institutional TEF branding – gold, silver, or bronze – which is likely to have the greatest impact upon our disciplines. While best-practice on a subject-level will be recognised, the policies and initiatives introduced to support teaching excellence are likely to occur at an institutional level. It is therefore worth reading more about the TEF to consider the ways that its rhetoric, processes and metrics of assessment may force the hands of the institutions we work for and with. After all, it is these decisions that have considerable potential to alter the way we work and research.

MeCCSA members, like other UK employees within the Higher Education system, will already have survived two full years of the gradual introduction of the TEF. From the perspective of the Department for Education (DfE), teaching excellence can be seen by scrutinising three areas: student attainment and learning gainthe learning environment; and the quality of teaching. During the introduction of TEF years one and two, the DfE gradually clarified the processes and metrics by which undergraduate teaching will be judged. In HE learning and teaching bulletins and training events across the land colleagues have attempted to identify what TEF could mean for their areas, and the many ways to prepare for its eventual full deployment (in 2019/2020). Much of the advice has been eminently sensible, including the call to pay close attention to student and market needs, consider the student journey and variability of learner dispositions, and, perhaps most divisively, to consider the notion of the student as customer.

All of these suggested actions fell by the wayside in October 2017 when the DfE published their latest TEF specification, and supporting TEF metrics example workbook, which included the clearest indication yet of the rhetoric and detail of the exercise. It is this that allows us to consider the cues that DfE are inviting Universities to respond to, and therefore the steps likely to be taken to avoid bronze and reach for gold. It is these institution-wide policy changes and initiatives, rather than the subject-level pockets, that are likely to impact upon academic life within Media, Communication and Cultural Studies and beyond.

The new TEF specification announced six core metrics of teaching excellence assessment, many of which will already be familiar due to their close connection to the National Student Survey (NSS), and DLHE (now called Graduate Outcomes) responses:

  1. Teaching on my course 
    – based upon NSS responses;
  2. Assessment and Feedback 
    – based upon NSS responses;
  3. Academic Support 
    – based upon NSS responses;
  4. Continuation 
    – HESA return data;
  5. Employment or further study 
    – Graduate Outcomes return;
  6. Highly skilled employment or further study 
    – Graduate Outcomes return. 

    In addition to the six core metrics the DfE has introduced two longitudinal supplementary metrics, based upon ‘experimental statistics on employment and earnings …from different government departments’ – essentially a combination of centralized government tax/earning data: 

  7. Sustained employment;
  8. Above median earnings threshold or further study.

Furthermore, the new TEF specification detailed a tweaking of the respective weightings of the metrics, we learned that the NSS metrics (1, 2 and 3) will carry less weight in the calculation, while continuation and employment will carry greater weight. This was combined with the observation that TEF will identify absolute performance, irrespective of University group or other benchmarking mechanism – all Universities will be judged by the same metric, and the top and bottom 10% will be highlighted.

It is important to consider what this means: the TEF implementation regards employment or further study as one of the most important measures of excellent teaching within Higher Education. According to the DfE, teaching excellence can be measured by identifying what subject areas students continue to study, graduate employment levels, and earning differentials. This is clearly a wholly reductive view of the purpose and value of Higher Education, and of what constitutes teaching excellence. It is also an approach that one would assume privileges subjects that are closely aligned to workforce skills gaps, and Russell group universities – as these graduates are more likely to enter employment, and to earn higher than median salaries.

Yes, TEF does recognize the value of intellectual activity, rigorous assessment and passionate teaching, but the peculiar way that it is being approached is through employment rates, earnings, and the nature of graduate jobs. It is this employment and further-study-centrism, and the way that this will guide whether an institution receives a bronze, silver or gold award, which is likely to push institutions into action, and bring about changes to our disciplines. Comparing subject employment levels is simplistic and utterly reductive, failing to recognize the value and contribution of all disciplines, but it is something that TEF’s metrics will force institutions to do. This becomes potentially more problematic when the supplementary metrics are included, tracking employment and earnings levels over a period of years (if not decades). What institutions then do is yet to be seen, although if we look closely some indications are becoming visible.

Those already familiar with the NSS, which annually surveys final-year students about their experiences, will recognize metrics one, two and three, and will understand how this translates into in-class teaching activity. These metrics are focused upon curriculum design, assessment, feedback, tutor support and delivery – activities that we would conventionally associate with teaching excellence. For example, metric one, aligns directly with NSS questions about staff enthusiasm and engagement, tutors’ ability to explain the subjects involved, and whether the course content is intellectually engaging and interesting. Metrics two and three are broader in their scope, capturing marking, feedback, availability of staff, contact methods and the relevance of tutorial support.

These first three metrics offer enormous potential for MeCCSA members, as we are fortunate that Media, Communication and Cultural Studies are amongst the most immediate and compelling academic areas. Our research speaks in the language and practices of society and culture, is widely accessible within and beyond the academy, and it is therefore rich in its ability to engage and capture student interest. While some other disciplines, deal more frequently with abstract and distant subjects, our work is so rooted in people, communities, cultures, belonging and being, that it is perfect material to excite, enthuse and intellectually stimulate. However, the concern is that DfE have advised us that these metrics are to receive lower-weighting to those around employment and further study.

Of course, simply because the content is ripe for bringing the subject to life, does not mean that all tutors will be able to, and TEF will certainly bring training issues to light. It will also compliment the push towards HEA fellowship and professional HE teaching qualifications. Yet, where tutors are teaching subjects that they inhabit and enjoy, even more-so where they can engage students in research informed teaching that connects passionate research with delivery, then the chances of achieving positive TEF scores are strong. These first metrics can be influenced by whatever we do within our direct teaching and scholarly activity, they are within our direct control.

TEF is likely to motivate greater institutional-level consideration of the suitability of course content and tutor, and a move towards greater application of research informed teaching, knowledge exchange and other activities that erode the divide between staff, students, teaching and research. Where our research fails to cross the divide between academic and student it is likely that funding and support will dwindle. The difference is that within the shadow of the TEF activities that do not assist with establishing a learning community, or that separate knowledgeable researchers from students as customers, are likely to be regarded as counterproductive (unless of course they bring in lots of funding). The ideal situation here is to have tutors not only teaching the subjects that they specialize in, but directly bringing their content into the curriculum – bringing the subject alive. But this is no different to the image of excellent teaching that we are likely to have had before TEF was ever coined. This type of teaching has always supported students in becoming independent and engaged learners who recognize the passion scholars have for their subjects… now it will also likely result in positive results within TEF metrics one-to-three (irrespective of their weighting). Here Media, Communication and Cultural Studies can celebrate its strengths, its ability to make sense of community, culture and everyday life.

Unfortunately, beyond the first three metrics we shift from the scope of direct teaching where individuals can make a visible difference, to the level of centralized services and initiatives. It is here where we face greater uncertainty as institutions decide how to respond to the challenges set out by TEF, notably the emphasis on employment and highly skilled employment. Geographic location of an institution is likely to play a significant factor, with those close to industry hubs or major cities likely to perform better than those on the periphery. It is unclear what the role of widening participation and satellite campuses is within the shadow of TEF, my guess is that TEF will lead to some centralisation of undergraduate teaching and a review of institutional portfolios across the UK.

While the TEF will inevitably raise many questions, it is ostensibly aimed to raise the quality of teaching within HE through making metrics visible and comparable. Some institutions may well decide to prioritize on subjects that perform well, and likewise to remove subjects that perform poorly from their portfolio. I imagine that the TEF will be a source of pain for some, especially if institutions choose to prioritise STEM and high-employment programmes. Yet, if we are seen to continue to bring excellent teaching and scholarly activity to the classroom, while making steps to improve employability and postgraduate progression the outlook is bright for our disciplines. We can already see the ways that institutions are preparing for TEF years three and four. Many Universities are considering their undergraduate provision in relation to existing and historical NSS and DLHE data, identifying what programmes perform well and poorly in terms of teaching and employment. It would be sensible to identify the specific modules / units / practices that result in positive and negative scores, sharing best practice and scrutinizing areas of poor performance. Some colleagues have reported greater efforts to connect with prospective industry employers / stakeholders to better understand valued connections and overlaps between HE and commerce. This is with an eye towards placement and employment opportunities, and employment statistics. Lastly, we have also seen greater emphasis placed upon articulating progression routes into postgraduate study, exploration of student incentives, and appetite for postgraduate collaboration with prospective employers.

As TEF is introduced it will result in a number of changes, some positive some disquieting. We may see programme curricula refreshed more frequently, and that there will be a prevailing pressure to deliver the cutting-edge, the newthe innovative, and the accessible. It is important that this is moderated as it has potential to be damaging as much as it may be transformative. We are likely to see the continued adoption and expansion of technology to support distance learning, remote engagement, and almost constant peer-availability. This will be done to emphasize the learning community of staff and students, and simultaneously streamline assessment and feedback. These online tools are likely to be twinned with greater scrutiny of in-class delivery and module leadership, with far greater consideration of tutor expertise, teaching style and module content. This is another area that must be navigated carefully. We will see expansion of placement and industry engagement activities, with universities seeking employer progression agreements and articulations where possible. Academics are likely to be invited to make programme-level connections with employers, and for the more frequent adoption of industry steering or stakeholder groups, where employers are able to comment upon curriculum development. We are likely to be invited to write and/or amend programmes in response to the needs of employers.

So, after all this what does TEF likely mean to Media, Communication and Cultural Studies? The TEF shines light on excellence in teaching, as measured through the NSS. I would argue that this is already the case, with NSS data widely available on an institutional and subject level. What more does TEF do then? It introduces additional metrics that focus on academic continuation, short-and-long-term employment, and graduate earnings. It is difficult not to see this as a potential risk for Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, and the humanities in general. The risk is that TEF will disproportionately favour STEM subjects and Russell Group institutions. While the TEF 2017 results generally aligned with this assumption, it also saw some institutions perform better and worse than expected. This would suggest that for institutions willing to innovate there is potential to have teaching excellence recognised – albeit teaching excellence as framed by DfE’s reductive lens.

So, what can we expect? That institutions will do whatever they can to avoid bronze TEF awards, and the issues this raises for reputation and student recruitment. This is likely to be the prevailing response, aside from institutions that have a specific geographical or reputational advantage, there may be some institutions that simply ignore TEF, although they are likely to be small in number. For bronze award institutions without advantageous circumstances it is possible that programmes with poor employment and continuation statistics will cease recruitment. These will be the toughest institutions for academics within Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, as the risk is that under these pressures an institution will entrench within STEM. Silver award institutions will be subject to pressures to continue to develop or maintain employment and progression links on one level, and to innovate in teaching – it is only through both of these metrics that a gold award is likely. There will likely be calls or incentives towards greater research informed teaching, and potentially a nudge towards prioritising research that engages with industry, or that has wide public interest. Media, Communication and Cultural Studies is perhaps better placed than many other subject areas to respond to such a call. Research that captivates the public, industry, prospective and current students is likely to be an asset to institutions within the shadow of TEF. Lastly, what of the gold awarded institutions? They will enjoy increased applications and reputational gain, colleagues at these are likely to avoid the immediate pressures felt at bronze and silver institutions, but will need to continue to consider the link between research and teaching. What is unlikely to happen however, especially in the light of Mr Siddiqui’s legal case against Oxford University on grounds of ‘poor teaching’, is a widespread culture of research leave and delivery by postgraduate students. TEF forces all institutions and subjects to consider the suitability of staff support and excellence of teaching, it still contains this even if it is overshadowed by DfE’s focus on employment and earnings.

Posted by Einar Thorsen