Introduced in 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) aimed to create a detailed and standardised measure for assessing the quality of teaching and outcomes amongst Higher Education Institutions [HEIs]. With initial worries over how many universities would sign up to the measure proving unfounded, the TEF has actually seen an increase in subscribing HE institutions, with 30 awaiting grading in early 2019. It was also placed onto a statutory footing as a result of the formation of the Office for Students (OFS), ensuring that TEF is likely to be a long-term project that both the government and HE institutions will have to work with.
There are some notable aspects of the TEF that have already been praised. The use of benchmarking metrics was praised as the ‘biggest leap forward’ in assessing student experience on ‘actual merits’ by David Morris, Policy Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich. The Department of Education has been keen to engage with universities on the TEF, producing not just a ‘lessons learned’ document but also commissioning the Independent Pearce Review, which will report this summer. HE Institutions have already admitted that the TEF has ‘increased institutional focus on teaching and learning’, and it is part of a noble attempt to improve the experience of students throughout the university process, from application to graduation.
Yet, it is not clear that one of the major intended outcomes of the TEF project – to aid students in selecting and holding to account their universities – is being achieved. A UCAS report, published after the 2018 UCAS cycle, found that just 19% of UK applicants knew what the TEF is, a figure that fell to just 9% and 10% for EU and non-EU applicants respectively. Furthermore, of those students who knew what the TEF was, just 58% said that the awards were either ‘important or extremely important’ to them when deciding where to apply. Therefore, whether TEF can prove to be a key aid for students in deciding their education futures is yet to be seen, although Clare Marchant, UCAS Chief Executive, is hopeful, calling TEF an ‘emerging’ factor in ‘influencing student’s decision-making’
Indeed, the major Universities UK report The Future of TEF, published in February 2019, argued that whilst UUK institutions support the general idea of a TEF, it still faces a series of challenges to be an appropriate assessment measure. These included improving the role of universities and students in developing the TEF, incorporating non-metric based assessments, increasingly focus on teaching and learning outcomes primarily and rethinking the suitability of subject-level TEFs.
Furthermore, the Royal Statistical Society has argued that the current use of statistics in the TEF is not up to standard, with a lack of proof that awards can be compared directly between institutions and concern over the transparency within the TEF. The TEF framework is an innovative response to a clear policy problem, although it is not clear that it is currently fulfilling its potential. With the Pearce review on TEF due to publish this summer, a clearer picture on the current state of the TEF should appear, and consultation on appropriate reforms can be initiated.