Three-D Issue 26: The Story of the TEF

AGARDNER_B_HighResAbigail Gardner
University of Gloucestershire

Once upon a time there was a King and his advisors who invented a game for their most illustrious scholars and teachers to play. The game was called TEF and it was new and uncalled for. They told the scholars they had to play the game, that it would get them lots of money and that their reputations depended on it. They told them when the game was to begin but they did not tell them the rules. These, they said, would become clear as the game unfolded. The King and his advisors trusted the scholars and teachers to be able to get on with the game without any further instruction, and some of the advisors in the distant past, had themselves been scholars too. But that time was long gone and they had forgotten what it was like and contented themselves with telling the scholars the best way to teach, using a magic potion of metrics and market data.

This fairytale is not meant to be facetious. It draws on Borges’ work, for who the notion of ‘Once Upon a time’ was not a mirror of history but a mask of the present. And this present is in a particularly precarious position after the June 23rd European referendum in the UK. Before that, mock TEF results rewrote the league tables, and jettisoned some Russell group institutions way down the table. The TEF, with its reliance on a cocktail of deliverable metrics, based on student satisfaction (NSS), employability (DHLE) retention rates equates teaching with customer satisfaction and employment in a professional position 6 months after graduation. This is not a measure of teaching excellence. The NSS returns are volatile, departments know how to time their instructions to students to fill it in after foreign trips, before final marks, all of us work to maximise its potential and minimise the dangers of students ‘venting’. Notwithstanding the problems with gender differentiations in module valuation returns, setting aside the issues of how a customer satisfaction survey might be equated to a demonstrable measure of teaching excellence, some student bodies too see the TEF as a blunt tool. The NUS at KCL report that there are plans to sabotage the NSS so that part of the metrics cannot be utilised because of the fear that TEF results will lead to hikes in tuition fees. In a teaching led institution such as the one I work in, where module evaluations are conducted mid term and end of term, where reviews of professional practice ensure that teaching observations are conducted annually, where all measures from supportive academic development units are put in place to support members of staff who which to refresh their teaching practice, where we we have a high proportion of NTFs and UTFs, HEA fellows and senior fellows, here the TEF seems to be an unwelcome, un-thought out and misdirected measure. It simply does not ‘measure’ teaching excellence – at best it serves to offer up an echo of the kind of teaching that might be taking place here.

Now, after the narrow vote to leave the EU and before any one’s finger has pressed the Article 50 button, there is no one in position to enact the TEF. It is currently unclear who will make up the Government and what place the current HE and Research Bill might have within a newly configured Parliamentary schedule.  Much of TEF itself could still go ahead, because it is not dependent on new primary legislation.  But the framework of legal rights and powers within which TEF operates is now more uncertain. And so, not only do we have a newly introduced rubric for measuring teaching excellence that draws on satisfaction surveys and job statistics to draw its conclusions, but the very process is being contested; by students, by the UCU, by academics and HE lecturers. It is unwelcome and now potentially unworkable due to the current national political turmoil. Welcome to class everyone. There is no happy ending.

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