Three-D Issue 35: No more medals: the latest on the TEF

Abigail Gardner
University of Gloucestershire

So, we’re off the podium then. No more Gold, Silver or Bronze. The OfS has listened to Dame Shirley Pearce on this one. The TEF gongs were too simplistic and the Pearce review pointed out exactly why. No-one likes to come third. Recognising that ‘bronze’ played particularly badly internationally, the OfS is willing to work with Pearce’s suggestions that institutions are TEF graded as ‘outstanding’, ‘highly commended’, ‘commended’, and (the bit ‘bronzy’) ‘meets UK Quality requirements’.

Five years ago, I wrote a short piece about the TEF for Three-D and how I was not that much of a fan of it. Now in Covid spring 2021, just as REF 2021 grinds to an end, the TEF rears up again in the form of the government’s response to Pearce’s wholescale and detailed independent review. So, what now for the TEF beyond the disposal of the medals? Well, it now appears that the it won’t be an annual grind, more of a 4 or 5-yearly submission, and not subject specific, with all its related issues to do with metrics, low numbers, subject mapping, and administration. However, the tension between there needing to be some quality measure of what is happening in HE, what Pearce calls the ‘potential benefits of enhancing educational provision for undergraduate students’ (p.11), and how to measure it continues. Pearce notes the diversity of HE provision across the UK and the resulting complexity in relation to determining what “an excellent educational experience and environment should look like” and the lack of an ‘agreed metrics against which to assess performance’ (p.43).

The Government response talks of using ‘robust data’ in a ‘straightforward, non-bureaucratic, and cost effective’ (p.8) way but there may be wrangles over the nature of what constitutes ‘robust’ and its regional and cross disciplinary variants. And I wait to see what ‘non-bureaucratic’ might look like in a sector whose bureaucratic tendencies are baroque. At least student satisfaction is off the menu. This criterion (the others being ‘teaching and learning environment’, ‘educational gains’ and ‘graduate outcomes’) has always been a losing game and the replacement with ‘student academic experience’ moves us away from the satisfaction ‘thumbs up’.

The government also didn’t like Pearce’s recommended acronym, ignoring her proposal of an ‘EdEF’, (Educational Excellence Framework) in favour of ‘TESOF’ (Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework). In this battle of the acronyms, the government yet again maps out its narrow vision of HE, pushing the onus on the individual’s ‘teaching’ rather than the broader institutionally specific educational ecosystem. Tracing out that direct causal relation between ‘teaching’ and ‘outcomes’, they disregard Pearce’s more expansive notion of the educational dynamic, whereby ‘learning in HE does not just happen in the classroom’ (p.44). There are broader, social benefits of a HE education, she notes, including ‘improved social cohesion, social mobility and political stability, as well as benefits to individuals, such as improved life expectancy, life satisfaction and health behaviours’ (p.57). Can’t count all of this though, can you.

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