It is one of the remarkable transformations of our time: the world is going to university, and participation in higher education is increasing. On every continent, more young people are going to university than ever before, and increasing numbers are graduating. In the UK, over a third of 18-year-olds go to university – and that figure is higher in the US, Canada and Korea, and rising fast in China and Africa.
As a result, around the world, governments are challenging their university systems to play an ever greater part in generating knowledge, educating highly skilled workforces and building more cohesive societies.
At the same time, they are puzzling about how to afford mass higher education. And that situation opens up a potential gap, between the world of higher education providers and the world of stakeholders – who are demanding more, and demanding it more accessibly.
Universities are unique institutions – not just because they undertake research or because they teach – but because, uniquely, they do both. And great teaching matters – it matters to universities as much as it matters to schools and colleges. And for the first time the quality of teaching at English universities will be assessed as part of the introduction of the teaching excellence framework (TEF).
Of course, identifying and recognising high quality teaching is both simple and complex. Excellence in teaching is something we all know when we see it, but specifying what exactly it is turns out to be a more complex exercise.
The TEF addresses this in a sensible way. It does not set out to assess teaching quality directly, but to look for those features which are the consequence of high quality teaching and student engagement, such as strong student responses, high levels of progression and retention.
The TEF begins from a common sense position – that teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes are the right places to look for evidence of the impact universities have. It then derives “core metrics” from the annual National Student Survey and HESA data on student initial employment – and uses these to develop initial theories about the work universities are doing.
All of this will be overseen by a panel drawn from across and beyond the sector, applying its judgement and expertise – and I am the chair of the panel.
The TEF brings the opportunity to create a structure to celebrate excellence, provide clearer market signals and enhance quality across the sector. And if we get it right, to give yet stronger signals to international students about the sheer quality to be found across UK higher education.
The UK government is clear that it wants to create a link between funding and teaching quality, which will provide opportunities to reinforce and celebrate quality. And this is an opportunity to enhance understanding of higher education and of the way teaching is developing in a responsive and fast-changing sector.
Of course there are potential risks, both for individual institutions and also to UK higher education as a global brand. That means that the panel has to get the process right, and navigate a route through a complicated mass of data on a diverse sector.
Much of the initial work has been focused on understanding and responding to sector concerns, and these matter a lot. But there are other interests, too, which is why there is student representation on the TEF panel – because we need to be alert to student concerns about the overall quality of provision. So although it is important to reflect sector concerns, it is also necessary for the sector to recognise that universities matter to others, too.
There is no denying that the stakes in the TEF are high – high for government, high for universities and high for UK higher education. But if it is designed properly, and managed effectively, the TEF can give us the opportunity to celebrate excellence and provide a common way to think about how it develops.
And with more and more young people going to university, it becomes all the more important to develop a framework we can use to communicate clearly what is going on in university teaching.