Inside Track – 8 December – Professor Tom Ward

Professor Tom Ward, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education, comments on the Teaching Excellence Framework.


In a busy year for higher education policy, discussion about how teaching should be measured has dominated. The Government has decided that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be the main tool to do this, and the University Executive Group, ratified by the Council, has decided that we will take part in this process in the current pilot year (which is being referred to as TEF2.)  This is to update you about what that involves and why we are taking part.

Since the Green Paper consultation in November 2015 asked which measures should be used to assess teaching quality in HE, we have been an active participant in the TEF debate.  In our response to the Green Paper, we supported the TEF’s core aims: to raise teaching standards, provide greater focus on graduate employability and widen participation in higher education. We also made clear that we opposed the link to fees.

We also had real concerns about some methodological issues. Two particular concerns are that the initial model suggests that no account will be taken of absolute measures, with all the weighting being on performance relative to benchmarks, and it seems that large universities could be placed at a disadvantage. If a university is large enough, then for its given slice of the data (for example, retention of high tariff WP students) it largely creates its own benchmark and therefore cannot significantly exceed it.

It is important that the University is engaged with the TEF2 process for several reasons. The Framework will emerge, in the fullness of time, as a significant proxy measure for educational excellence. Putting aside the wide range of views on the policy itself, to be left out of the new system would involve unacceptable risks.

By remaining in the process, we can use our expertise to help shape the development of TEF to benefit future students. In fact, we are already doing this. The Minister has asked universities to create advisory groups, and Leeds is represented on the one created by the Russell Group.

We have consistently emphasised our belief that the introduction of the TEF should be seen as a mechanism for enhancing teaching excellence in universities and for building on the international reputation of UK higher education. We are acutely concerned about the possible effect that the TEF may have on international recruitment. At Leeds the excellence of the student experience we offer, which was recognised through the recent Times and Sunday Times University of the Year award, is a key contributor to our international reputation. There is a risk that the intended meanings of gold, silver, and bronze will be lost and an impression given internationally of a lack of confidence in parts of the sector.

The publication of the Government’s White Paper policy document in May set out the headline key areas that will be assessed and which metrics will be used:

- Assessment and feedback, using the teaching quality questions from the National Student Survey (NSS)
- Retention, using Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) UK Performance Indicators
- The proportion of graduates in employment or in further study, using the Destination of Leavers in HE Survey (DLHE).

Higher education providers can also submit a document - an ‘institutional narrative’ - that puts this data into context, outlining a wider range of teaching and learning activities beyond the metrics. 

This is a good opportunity for Leeds to showcase its distinctiveness in student education: with excellent National Student Survey scores, the Leeds Curriculum, the highest number of National Teaching Fellows in the UK, the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, and an ever-developing online learning offer, we have much to be proud of.  

A University-wide group made up of staff and students is working together on our submission, which has a deadline of 26 January 2017. In May, universities will be told whether they have been awarded a gold, silver or bronze grading. Results will not in this phase be linked to the amount by which universities can increase their fees – every institution that achieves a grading will be able to increase them by the inflationary rate. The intention is that these gradings can then be used by students applying for university in Autumn 2017.

The University Executive Group will decide each year whether to recommend that Leeds take part in the TEF for the following year, a decision ultimately taken by University Council. We have agreed that decisions about whether to take part in the TEF each year should be separated from any decisions about whether to raise tuition fees if the outcome permits it.

As with any new policy initiative, much remains to be seen and details are yet to emerge. As Tim Knickmann writes in his excellent piece in The Gryphon on 2 December, “whether the TEF is refined and made into a usable tool by prospective students, whether the metrics are overhauled, and whether universities start gaming the system are all unclear.” However this emerges, the University of Leeds will rightly be a key player in one of the most important debates in higher education in recent years.

Tom Ward

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