The University of Edinburgh has joined several other Scottish universities in choosing not to be entered into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), an initiative newly introduced by the UK government to assess universities on their teaching quality.
The TEF, which ranks higher education institutions gold, silver, or bronze, uses three main metrics to assess teaching: reports of student satisfaction through the National Student Survey (NSS); the number of students who drop out; and the jobs that students find after they have graduated.
TEF Chair Professor Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, stated in a public press release that the TEF will “draw together a comprehensive sense of teaching excellence across the nation’s higher education provision.”
However, although most English universities will enter, the majority of Scottish universities are refusing to participate, with only 5 taking part in the program.
The Student spoke to Patrick Garratt, the Edinburgh University Student Association Vice President Academic Affairs (VPAA), on why the University of Edinburgh has chosen to boycott the TEF in 2017.
Garratt believes that the University’s boycott, which is strongly supported by the Students’ Association, “will dramatically change higher education.”
Garratt explained that the main controversy surrounding the TEF is the metrics which are used. According to Garratt, many believe that the measures which the TEF utilise to assess excellence in education are inappropriate to measure teaching and education quality.
Regarding the usage of NSS results in assessing teaching, Garratt explains that “a lot of students will say, well, if they liked it, and they were satisfied by [a course], that should be a good thing.”
However, he poses that “satisfaction is ultimately not a good metric to judge the experiences of students and staff in the classroom, because, in many cases, universities can compel students to give high satisfaction scores through financial incentives.”
He also gives the example of a student who takes a class that they do not enjoy because they find it difficult, arguing that this might lead them to score their satisfaction with the course low on the NSS.
“Just because it was difficult, it doesn’t mean it was taught badly,” Garratt explains.
Garratt also criticises the use of graduate employment statistics as a measure. “You’d be foolish to say that students don’t care about employability,” Garratt concedes, but “you could have had a fantastic degree in humanities, were taught really, really well and six months down the line, unfortunately, still can’t find a job; that doesn’t mean you were taught poorly.”
He also argues that, with plans for the TEF to be used to assess individual subjects, the use of employment statistics could unfairly affect which courses receive funding in the future.
Regarding this issue, Garratt explained that there may be some degrees that will, over time, deliver higher rates of graduate employment. Therefore, to get a gold medal in the TEF, universities may choose to prioritise their resources to those particular subjects.
Garratt also discussed the further ramifications the TEF could have in England, where the UK government plans to allow universities to raise fees higher than the national rate of £9,000 if they achieve a certain ranking.
Although Garratt acknowledges that this is not applicable to Scotland, where universities are already able to raise their fees for “Rest of UK” (RUK) students, he argues that, in England, this could create a tiered pricing system.
This is reflected in a current boycott of the National Student Survey by English universities, coordinated by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Using the slogan, “No to fee rises, no to the TEF”, the NUS plans to disrupt the NSS data that will be used by the UK government in the TEF.
Ultimately, Garratt says, the TEF “degrades and undermines what you get in the teaching process”, stating that it is a “further extension and deepening of the commodification of higher education.”
However, while there are clear controversies surrounding the TEF, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Chief Executive, Madeline Atkins said in a press release that the HEFCE are “pleased” with participation, considering that the TEF is still in its early stages of development.
She added: “the high proportion of eligible providers submitting this week builds on the strong demand we received to serve as assessors.”
Universities Minister for the UK Government, Jo Johnson, also spoke of the positive prospects of the TEF initiative in a press conference on 27 January.
Referencing the participation of the majority of English universities, she said: “I am delighted that so many providers have decided to participate.”
She went on to say that “the Teaching Excellence Framework will drive up the standard of teaching and give students clear, understandable information about where they are likely to receive the best teaching outcomes.
“Such strong participation demonstrates that the sector has brought into the concept of the TEF and I look forward to seeing the results of the assessments in May,” Johnson concluded.
Image: Edinburgh University Students’ Association