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Vanessa Cui

April 28th, 2020

A missed opportunity? How the UK’s teaching excellence framework fails to capture the voice of university staff

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Vanessa Cui

April 28th, 2020

A missed opportunity? How the UK’s teaching excellence framework fails to capture the voice of university staff

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (aka Teaching Excellence Framework, TEF), aims to represent and evaluate the quality of teaching within UK higher education institutions. Whilst the stated aims and ability of the TEF to achieve this have often been questioned, less is known about how higher education institutions have implemented the new framework. Drawing on a recent survey of approximately 6000  higher education staff focused on how the TEF has been implemented, Vanessa Cui and her colleagues argue that in practice the TEF has largely failed to engage with educators and as such it will struggle to function in the way it was intended, to spur innovation and improvement in university teaching.


Since its conception in 2015 in the Green Paper ‘Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’, the TEF has been widely debated within UK academia. Initial concerns predominantly focused on the government’s plan to link institution TEF outcomes to a system of tuition fee differentiation. Once the Framework was passed in the ‘Higher Education and Research Act’ in 2017, the focus of the debate moved onto the TEF’s methodology and the ability of this methodology and the chosen measurements to actually capture anything meaningful about teaching and teaching excellence. Since its implementation, attention has shifted to the TEF’s impact (potential and actual) on higher education institutions. Students have also joined in the debate and contributed their views and experiences on the matter of teaching and learning (e.g. ‘Alternative TEF by Bristol Students’ Union’). However, there has been an acute lack of involvement of HE staff members during the design and implementation of the TEF at institutional level and sector wide.

To plug the gap in knowledge and research relating to the impact and implications of the TEF on those working in HE, myself and my colleagues Professor Matt O’Leary and Dr Amanda French carried out an independent research project on the impact and implications of the TEF on staff working in higher education in the UK. The study took place between February 2018 and January 2019 and it captured the experiences and views of 5895 higher education staff from 154 institution. The project was intended to form part of UCU’s contribution to the Independent Review of the TEF in 2019 – to make higher education staff perspectives more visible in the Review and the TEF, which has not been the case in the development and implementation of the TEF to date. 

experiences of the policy so far have mainly been centralised top-down approaches to standardise, manage and evaluate practices for the TEF assessment

A key finding from our study is that whilst the rhetoric around the TEF may articulate government aspirations for teaching excellence in higher education, its implementation does not appear to have involved the majority of staff who actually deliver teaching in higher education. This makes us question how effective the TEF is, in encouraging, promoting and capturing high quality teaching and learning carried out by staff and students. We found since the introduction of the TEF, institutions have started a range of initiatives and activities that mainly focused on legitimising the TEF policy and its methodology uncritically. Our participants’ experiences of the policy so far have mainly been centralised top-down approaches to standardise, manage and evaluate practices for the TEF assessment. This is captured by one participant’s comment:

“…senior colleagues do take notice of the TEF, it gives them another set of levers with which to micro-manage academic colleagues from a position of assumed and spurious managerial neutrality. And most fundamentally, the TEF quite openly continues the encroachment of metrics-driven management into HE. Metrics redefine achievement in terms of arbitrary targets, degrade work by reducing it to the measured delivery of objectives, put staff into competition with one another and turn managers into controllers. These are not the side effects of metrics but their core effects.”

Over 80% of participants reported no consultation or direct involvement in their institution’s TEF assessment exercise and TEF-related activities. There was a clear picture that the operationalisation of TEF assessment at an institutional level was being driven by management (36.05% reported being directly involved) and professional services (18.22% reported being directly involved). On the other hand, very few staff on a ‘teaching-focused/teaching-only’ contract reported they were aware of or involved in their university’s TEF activities at all (5.86%). 

While in some institutions there have been changes made to promote teaching and learning, in the majority of the 154 institutions, the impact and implications of the TEF felt by staff have been negative. A strong theme from across the data set was how the TEF had created another layer of administrative bureaucracy, which had given rise to additional work streams and an increase in workloads, often with no additional resources to support the resultant extra workload. A large proportion of participants experienced increasing workloads without any accompanying increase of hours and/or pay. One of the knock-on effects of this was a reduction in time for teaching preparation, teaching development and/or marking. Participants perceived the impact of the TEF to have been mostly negative on their working conditions, their personal health and wellbeing. 

the current policy direction and implementation has clearly failed to capture the views and experiences of students and staff

Participants from over 95 institutions reported they were aware of contractual changes that had taken place since the introduction of the TEF. These participants were anxious about what they perceived as a lack of clarity about the day-to-day implications of changes to academic contracts. Participants acknowledged this contractual change was driven by a combination of the TEF and the Research Excellence Framework (REF), as institutions sought to meet the demands of both by trying to focus staff on one or the other. Research and/or teaching contracts appeared to be becoming more clearly differentiated across many providers. One participant stated that their institution framed these changes ‘so that everybody has the best chance to succeed in their role (because they can opt for the one that suits them) and then won’t have to “also do” stuff they don’t want to do/cannot do so well’, however, the majority commented on how staff were often ‘bullied’ or ‘forced’ into new contracts and that they ‘had to choose between teaching and research’.

There is no doubt that the TEF is driving higher education institutions to change their behaviours towards managing teaching and learning. However, the approaches to operationalisation of the TEF mainly reflect a wider government agenda with regard to higher education. The majority of staff, especially those most involved in teaching, are excluded from the TEF process and its related activities. This contradicts one of the central aims of the TEF stated by Sir Michael Barber that it should “be a catalyst for improvement of, and innovation in, the quality of teaching…[to] generate informed dialogue about teaching quality both within institutions and between them”. This study found very limited evidence that any such dialogue has occurred within institutions.   

The government has made clear its higher education priorities and the TEF will continue to be its key vehicle for delivering student outcomes. At the same time, students and staff have also made their feelings clear that improving learning and teaching is a very important matter to them and it is something they welcome. However, the current policy direction and implementation has clearly failed to capture the views and experiences of students and staff. Given the shortcomings identified with the way in which policy makers have conceptualised and operationalised the TEF, I argue the time has come for students and staff to begin to put forward the case for alternative visions of teaching excellence in higher education.

 


This post draws on the author’s co-authored paper A missed opportunity? How the UK’s teaching excellence framework fails to capture the voice of university staff, published in Studies in Higher Education. 

Image credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel, via Unsplash.


 

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About the author

Vanessa Cui

Dr Vanessa Cui is a Research Fellow at Birmingham City University Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education (C-SPACE). With a multi-disciplinary background across education, research and management, Vanessa has been working in research and development of higher education (HE) learning and teaching since 2009 at Undergraduate and Postgraduate provisions in several English universities. Her academic research involves working with HE practitioners and students on the interface between learning and teaching and its policy and practical implications.

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