The 2017 TEF Results: Turmoil in UK higher education

We all knew that the TEF results would send shock waves throughout the UK HE landscape, but most of us were unprepared for the ferocity and level of intensity of their impact.  In the days leading up to Thursday June 22nd, the day when the results were released, rank and file academics had mostly written off the TEF as just one of those “mickey-mouse league tables” that currently litter the higher education columns in our tabloids. If our academic leaders thought otherwise, then I must say they were very good at concealing a burning secret, for that’s what the TEF turned out to be, a scorching inferno that has turned UK HE upside down.

The UK higher education hierarchy under the spotlight

In their wake, the TEF results have shattered our perceptions of the traditional hierarchy of UK higher education. First, received wisdom was that the less research intensive and more teaching-focussed universities would excel, and the research giants would justify their respectability by positioning themselves in the middle, or towards the end of the TEF rankings. After all, the majority of current teaching league tables, whether by design or default, invariably rank UK HE institutions inversely to their position on the hugely respected university world rankings. If that had been the case, then we would have easily consigned the TEF to the dustbin by simply asking: “Just tell me of any one world-class university in the top TEF rankings!”  The first bombshell was that this was far from the case. Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial got Golds in the TEF, and we all looked up. Ask anyone in the world to name three top universities, and chances are that they will name these three universities, even if they cannot point to the position of the UK on Google Maps. So the first myth of UK HE was debunked –  if Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial have TEF Gold, then TEF matters, and if TEF matters, then teaching matters, and if teaching matters, then the TEF is here to stay.

There are over 150 universities and higher education institutions in the UK, but until Thursday 22nd June, it was simple for anyone to distinguish between them using this principle: there are universities, and then there are real universities. If you go down to the pub, the simple question “Which university did you go to?” is not as innocent as it looks.  In the public eye, if you went to a prestigious research intensive university, in particular a Russell Group university, then you went to a real university, otherwise you didn’t.  Again, by 10 am on Thursday 22nd June, this myth was in the dustbin. It is no longer enough for an institution to be in the Russell Group. Whilst Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial got Gold, a huge number of Russell Group universities got Silver, and some household names, notably Liverpool and Southampton, found themselves with Bronze.

What it really means to be Gold, Silver or Bronze

In the public eye Gold means excellent, Silver means not so excellent, and Bronze is equivalent to the skull-and-crossbones symbol signifying danger, caution, risk or something to that effect. So immediately, the TEF has given us a simple and powerful, albeit crude, system for evaluating universities – is it Gold, Silver or Bronze? Of course this has been derived on the basis of teaching and the student experience, but that’s not the message that is conveyed. In the public eye, if an institution is Gold, then it’s excellent in teaching, and it’s excellent in research, and it’s excellent in everything that you may be looking for in a university. Conversely, if an institution is Bronze, then it is bronze in everything, it’s that simple.

For university management, being Gold means classes will be full, university teaching revenues will overflow, gold-class academics, whether teaching or research focussed, will be easier to attract, graduate recruiters will besiege the university, grateful alumni will engage more with the university, and more revenue streams wil lbe opened up.  For graduates, a TEF Gold also has immense benefits. First, they will have a significant advantage over their non-Gold competitors, and this is despite any individual shortcomings that they might have. And in the long run, they are likely to go higher up the career ladder, for, after all, which well-meaning organisation would consciously pass up the opportunity of enhancing their individual reputation through association with a Gold-class university?  Having Gold-class employees in your organisation is a powerful marketing tool, whatever their actual productivity.

Conversely being labelled Bronze is likely to be the equivalent of an institution catching a contagious disease. Employers, potential students, and potential research  and teaching partners will take flight. This is likelty to lead to a fall in revenues, loss of staff morale, and a high staff-turnover as excellent academics flee.  If the instituion lacks a strong, responsive leadership, the Bronze label is likely to be self-fulfilling, and the institution will fall into a cess pool from which it may not come back.

TEF winners and losers

The past two days suggest that post-TEF, universities are likely to re-organise themselves into at least two camps – one camp for those extolling their teaching excellence on the back of their TEF awards, and the other camp for those crying foul. Included in the first camp is Portsmouth University, which placed a full page ad in the Guardian describing themselves as a university with a “Gold rating in Teaching Excellence”. Another one is the University of Exeter, who immediately set up an institutional web page proclaiming their newfound TEF Gold, with the inscription: “University of Exeter, Internationally Excellent Education.”

The other camp will consist mostly of those institutions that were awarded a Bronze. To date institutions belonging to this camp have been characterised either by their muted “no-comment” expressions, or  their very high visibility attacks on the TEF as a flawed and misdirected evaluation system.  See, for example, the sceptical comments by Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, in the Times Higher Education.   However, what is noteworthy is that none of the Bronze institutions has declared that they will NEVER EVER participate in the TEF exercise again.  This is a tacit acceptance that the TEF is here to stay, and, I would add, a plea by institutions on the wrong end of the TEF exercise for leniency and protection from the resulting public glare.

Some institutions chose not to participate, some for noble reasons, and some for not so noble reasons. Either way, TEF refuseniks appear to have lost out. With so many institutions participating, a question that will refuse to go away is: “What are the refuseniks hiding?”  And so, by default, in the public eye, refuseniks are somewhere in the darker shades of the Bronze category, and that perception is likely to prove too difficult to dispel in the short to medium term.

When the TEF overshadows individual excellence

The TEF results has also had an impact on both individual academics and departments.  For instance, the Sociology department at the University of Westminster, which was awarded a Bronze, felt compelled to issue a corrective statement on their blog page. In their statement, they remind the students of the department’s excellent track record as measured by NSS scores, institutional and national awards for teaching excellence, and supportive comments from external examiners. The department concludes by expressing the view that “the outcome for Sociology at Westminster has been the direct opposite: the TEF result says, quite plainly, that we’re crap at our jobs.”  In fact, a number of tweets on the TEF results seem to suggest that most academics in Bronze institutions agree with their counterparts in the University of Westminster Sociology Department. Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Provost (Education) at Imperial College London, has had to step in to remind colleagues that the TEF is an institutional measure, and not a measure for individual performance: “Don’t forget: TEF measures system performance, not individual teachers’. I have no doubt that >95% of UK university teachers are Gold.”

The TEF and the quest for excellence in academic education leadership

In the May 2016 government white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the two main goals of the TEF are to “provide clear information to students about where the best provision can be found and to drive up the standard of teaching in all universities.” Given the nature and complexity of teaching, both objectives are likely to remain contested for the foreseeable future. However, what is indisputable is that the TEF has focussed attention on teaching at the institutional level. As Simone Buitendijk points out, the main focus of the TEF is on system performance, and not on individual teaching within he classroom, which is only a small part of the teaching delivery process. This has direct implications on the quality of leadership in teaching and learning, or as Dilly Fung and Claire Gordon like to refer to it, on academic education leadership.

TEF and the future of UK HE: A rollercoaster journey

In conclusion, whilst the TEF is likely to go through several iterations before it becomes acceptable across the entire UK HE landscape, one thing is certain:  The quality of education leadership is likely to become an important issue across the entire sector, in particular within the research intensive sector where education leadership roles are often undertaken on a non-substantive basis. Of significant interest, however, is the likely interplay between the TEF and the REF going forward. More specifically, will TEF counterbalance the impact of the REF on UK HE, and if so, what are the consequences on current and future academic careers? And most importantly, will TEF have a lasting impact on UK HE, or when the dust clears, will we settle back into our old way of doing university education?  Only time will tell.

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