Some may argue it’s always wrong to try to evaluate something as complex as teaching. As an educationist – who knows just how complex teaching can be – I have some sympathy with this.
But more than ever before, students are investing significant sums of money – and personal risk – in their higher education. And they are particularly interested in precisely the things the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) measures. Things such as how likely they are to secure a highly skilled job as a result of their course, or how good their chosen university or college is at retaining students. These are both valid questions and we have the data to answer them – not crudely collected, but carefully collated.
As well as job prospects and dropout rates, the TEF also looks at how effective students think the assessment and feedback is at their university, along with the mix of students from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.
In many ways, the TEF signals a new way of thinking for universities. It sits alongside a number of recently published studies as part of an increased focus on outcomes for students. This includes the Longitudinal Education Outcomes data on salaries and employment, as well as the pilot studies of “learning gain” – a measure of the improvement in knowledge, skills, work readiness and personal development – made by students during their time spent at university.
In the past, universities have thought more about inputs, processes and outputs. Attention has been concentrated on staff, technology, curriculum, assessments and degree classifications. But this new focus on outcomes is a potential game changer. Not because outcomes are all that matter, but because, in a mass higher education system, they do matter. These outcomes are at the very core of the TEF, and they require universities to think hard about the impact of what they do and how they evaluate it.
Institutions which did best, wherever they are in the sector, grasped this with coherent and compelling ways to describe that relationship. The very best submissions were a joy to read, conveying a rich, vibrant learning experience which, among other things, engaged and stretched students – extending their sense of what is possible and orienting them to success beyond university or college. And this success was distributed across the sector – it is independent of institutional reputation, age, subject makeup or regional location.
Quite rightly, the TEF panel was required to focus on the way higher education meets the needs of the most disadvantaged. There are real success stories here, but few submissions were systematic on the ways in which disadvantage is addressed, and how they act to close performance gaps among groups of students.
This proved to be one of the most revealing and absorbing parts of the exercise, and one where almost everyone has things to learn – particularly from those institutions which are already working with marginalised groups in difficult settings.
As an educationist whose research expertise has been in schools, it strikes me that universities have much to learn from schools in the way they address disadvantage. It’s not enough simply to widen participation. What is important is to close gaps in attainment and to secure success beyond enrolment.
Lessons to learn
It’s been an exceptional privilege to chair the TEF panel and to oversee the assessment. The results clearly demonstrate the UK has a world-class higher education sector with outstanding examples across the country.
Almost inevitably it has been controversial, but it marks a striking advance for the sector – focused on outcomes and the processes which produce them. It is also a way of further raising the profile of one of the most important things all universities do: teaching.
The TEF team is not only publishing the results, but all the data – statistical and written submissions – that the assessments are based on. No higher education system in the world has previously released such a fabulous resource for understanding teaching. I will be using these results to ask tough questions of my own team at Sheffield Hallam, about what we do and how. And I hope other universities will use the opportunity to do the same.