The Teaching Excellence Framework Will Make University Teaching Worse

23/06/2017 10:45
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Finally, the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework have been published and universities in England and Wales now know whether they have been ranked gold, silver or bronze for teaching quality.

The Teaching Excellence Framework, or TEF as it has come to be known, was introduced in response to fears that despite charging some of the highest tuition fees in the world, English higher education is more focused on research than teaching. Incentives to engage in revenue-generating research can mean that, in some universities, academics are encouraged to see teaching as a distraction from the more important business of writing grant applications and securing publications.

The TEF is intended to put the spotlight back on to teaching. It purports to measure teaching quality through metrics. This means it is essentially a paper exercise that takes student responses to the annual - and frequently criticised - National Student Survey and adds this to data on student drop-out rates and statistics on the destination of graduates. All this data is then adjusted to take into account the different attributes of the students attending different universities before coming up with a final figure and rank.

There are problems with measuring the quality of teaching through looking at numbers on a piece of paper - however thoroughly adjusted and benchmarked these numbers might be. Metrics can tell us little about what actually happens in the lecture theatre or seminar room.

The high stakes league table of the TEF incentivises institutions to game the system. The TEF becomes a mechanism for holding academics to account and in the process it turns teaching into a bureaucratic function that can be weighed and measured. Boxes must be ticked and academics and students alike are expected to meet targets and jump through hoops. This risks further distracting from the time academics have to engage in developing the scholarship that underpins the intellectual project of both teaching and research.

Teaching in higher education is not the same as teaching in schools. Students are young adults, not children and pedagogic tricks that might work in a classroom for an under-pressure teacher trying to get thirty nine year-olds to learn times tables rarely apply in a university.

Students, as opposed to pupils, need far more than pedagogy. They need not just a subject specialist but a subject enthusiast - someone who knows their stuff and is evangelical about wanting to share it. This is less about teaching as a formal activity and more about inducting students into a passion for an intellectual pursuit. The success of this intellectual relationship between academic and student cannot be easily measured by a few numbers on a piece of paper.

In higher education quality teaching is based first and foremost upon academics having something interesting to say. Good lecturers need the time and space to pursue new knowledge and engage with existing scholarship.

The TEF privileges teaching style over substance. It places a paper exercises above an intellectual project. In so doing, the TEF makes university teaching worse not better.

Teaching quality can best be improved by liberating academics from the many demands on their time that have little to do with scholarship. This means not just abandoning the TEF but going further and scrapping the REF too.