The new TEF proposals could punish inclusive providers

30 Jan 2022, 6:00

The Teaching Excellence Framework has great potential – but new baseline measures could put FE-HE partnerships at risk, writes David Phoenix

Last week the Office for Students released proposals for a revised Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The TEF, which was first run back in 2017 but has been on hiatus since 2019, aims to incentivise “universities and colleges for excellence in teaching, learning and the outcomes they provide for their students”.

First off under the proposals, it will no longer be the case that previous TEF exercises will be voluntary. All providers, including colleges with more than 500 higher education students in England, will be required to participate. 

The proposals say that providers must meet a set of minimum baseline requirements for quality and standards, above which they will be judged for the excellence they provide in student experience and student outcomes. This is proposed to run every four years.

For student outcomes, the proposals say the panel should look at the last four years of data, checking three measures: year 1 to year 2 continuation, the rate of course completion, and progression into professional and managerial employment or further study.

Meanwhile, the student experience would consider the national student survey results for teaching, assessment, support, learning resources and student voice.

This data would be benchmarked against providers with similar student bodies. Providers must also submit a 20-page narrative statement (plus an optional student statement).

The panel would then make a final decision on whether to award gold, silver, bronze, or the new ‘requires improvement’ grade. 

HE and FE providers found to ‘require improvement’ will not be able to charge the highest undergraduate fees under the proposals. If given the go-ahead, the new TEF will launch later this year and would first report in the spring of 2023.

From my group’s experience of taking part in the 2017 exercise, I would argue that submitting to the TEF can be a useful process. But two details concern me.

1. More inclusive providers could lose out

I am worried about the introduction of non-contextualised, unbenchmarked minimum baseline requirements for quality and standards. FE providers will recognise this problem. 

These baseline requirements are currently subject to a separate OfS consultation. If implemented, a provider’s levels of continuation, completion and progression will be introduced as a requirement for inclusion on the higher education providers register. 

Aside from the financial impact of missing targets, such an approach will lend itself to more ranking exercises, so that institutions that take students with complex needs will always be at a disadvantage. 

This is not because such students are any less able but a reflection of the competing demands upon them, which inevitably mean that they have a higher likelihood of non-completion.

2. FE-HE partnerships under threat

There is a further unintended consequence, which I am particularly mindful of as the chief executive of an organisation that includes both a university and a college. That is the potential effect on HE-FE partnerships. 

Higher education could become far more conservative in its recruitment

The proposals could help support carefully crafted partnerships that underpin the development of higher technical qualifications and new learning pathways. But these joined-up pathways are still developing, and the concept of specialist organisations working in partnership needs to gain traction in the media.

Many universities will be forced to take action to improve their outcomes, and for some universities that may include terminating partnerships where they don’t have the resources to invest in more student support, or where stand-alone level 4 and 5 awards have not yet been fully developed.

More widely, it could see higher education becoming far more conservative in its recruitment, prioritising school and sixth-form college leavers who are most likely to help them meet their targets. 

A TEF designed to improve teaching quality and new educational pathways should be seen as a positive development, and encourage HE-FE partnerships. 

But the parallel development of non-benchmarked baselines has the potential to do the opposite. It could take us back to a place where higher education is for the privileged few. 

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