Teaching Excellence Framework: regressive or refreshing?

As expected , Britain’s minister responsible for universities has confirmed that he will introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework for all UK universities, matching the long-standing Research Excellence Framework. This, he says, will be light-touch: “I have no intention of replicating the individual and institutional burdens of the REF. I am clear that any external review must be proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic.” Universities that do well enough in the TEF will be permitted to raise their tuition fees above the current ceiling of £9000.

The small print of the TEF could be definitive. Calibrated one way, teaching excellence could recognize those universities that do most to change people’s lives and build a highly qualified workforce that is far broader than today. But if the development of the technical details goes down a different road, then current trends in inequality of access will be intensified and accelerated, sharpening and shrinking the pool of elite graduates. Here, the devil could come to own the detail.

Derfel Owen, Director of Academic Services at UCL, has suggested that the TEF should be based on existing measures as, indeed, the Minister’s policy steer implies. There will be all the more pressure for this with the linkage between the launch of the TEF and the opportunity for universities to raise their tuition fees.

In his valuable overview, Derfel groups candidate components for the TEF into three categories.

Firstly, input measures. These could be the proportion of a university’s staff with a postgraduate level teaching qualification, a measure linking an institution’s research strength with its teaching, and the strength of co-curricula opportunities for students.

Second, peer review. Here, a future version of the current National Student Survey is an inevitability. This, though, needs to be augmented by broader views, perhaps as an extension of the well tried mechanisms of external examination.

The third category is output measures. These are by far the most difficult and, I suggest, the key detail to watch for. How learning outputs are understood and measured could well determine the overall shape and character of Britain’s Higher Education system for many years to come.

Defining output measures for universities is invariably complex and contentious. In itself the exercise runs the risk of displacing imagination, flair and innovation in favour of conformity, compliance and regulation. Here is what Derfel Owen suggests: “I think a measure should be developed that looks at the entry qualifications that students arrive with and then how far along they get with their higher education. That way, universities that recruit students with no or few qualifications could be rewarded and could see the recognition increase as students achieve higher-level qualifications”.

Such a measure already exists. Alone among the major newspaper league tables, the Guardian University Guide incorporates “Value-Added Scores” in its ranking algorithm:

“Each full-time student is given a probability of achieving a 1st or 2:1, based on the qualifications that they enter with or, if they are in entry bands 20 and 50, the total percentage of good degrees expected for the student in their department. If they manage to earn a good degree then they score points which reflect how difficult it was to do so (in fact, they score the reciprocal of the probability of getting a 1st or 2:1). Thus an institution that is adept at taking in students with low entry qualifications, which are generally more difficult to convert into a 1st or 2:1, will score highly in the value-added measure if the number of students getting a 1st or 2:1 exceeds expectations”.

This approach works well enough for those parts of the education system where there are nationally set and moderated examinations at both the entry and the exit levels; for Sixth Form Colleges, for example, where students enter with GCSE scores and exit with A levels. And the results are often surprising, with good schools serving low-income areas often demonstrating learning gains that are far greater than schools recruiting from middle and high income catchments. But universities admit with a plethora of qualifications (and only about half of all British undergraduates have A levels). And, although universities don’t much like talking about it, the ways in which degrees are graded are not standardized and are not currently benchmarked beyond specific qualifications.

There is, then, nothing easy about setting up a learning output measure for universities. The key issue – and the factor that will determine the politics of the TEF – is that the qualification levels of students at admission will have been strongly modulated by their socio-economic circumstances.

Study after study has shown a strong statistical correlation between household income, school leaving qualifications, entry into higher education and the type of university attended. This, of course, is at the cohort level; there are always smart and dedicated individuals who beat the odds. But overall, in Britain today a postcode predicts educational opportunities from birth, irrespective of innate abilities.

So here are two potential TEF scenarios.

One road could follow Derfel Owen’s line of thought, with an algorithm for learning gain that takes into account both the formal educational achievements of the annual cohort of entering undergraduate students and also – and critically – the social and economic factors that have been demonstrated to influence their subsequent educational journey. This would require some sense of the equivalence of entry qualifications and, in particular, transparency in the ways in which universities calculate degree grades. The resulting measure of learning gain would then be linked to funding. This would be progressive, in that universities that were prepared to put the most effort into adding measurable value for their students would find the considerable costs of doing this matched by funding.

The second road would be based on the premise that taking prior circumstances into account is unfair, and that every entering student should be considered an equal competitor at the point of entering university. Output would then be the combination of student retention, progression and grades at completion. A good teaching university would be one that retains almost all its students, almost all of whom complete in three years, with a significant proportion gaining a “good degree”. Such universities would be rewarded by being allowed to put up their fees, allowing them to spend more on the other measures of teaching quality, such as staff development and co-curricula activities.

The problem with this second road is that, in a highly unequal society such as Britain today, it is the equivalent of regressive tax. Because all students do not have equal opportunities at the point of entry, some will be far more prepared than others. The more advantaged students that have been in their prior opportunities, the more likely they will be to stay, complete their degrees in three years and get a high standard of degree. Shifting funding towards such universities is to further disadvantage those universities that do the heavy lifting.

**

Derfel Owen, “How to build the teaching excellence framework”. Times Higher Education, 10 July 2015

https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/blog/how-build-teaching-excellence-framework

Matt Hiely-Rayner, 25 May 2015. “Methodology behind the Guardian University Guide 2016”. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/may/25/methodology-behind-the-guardian-university-guide-2016

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