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The 2015 Budget last week, announced by the Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, confirmed that universities with “high-quality teaching” will be allowed to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18. In turn, this announcement means that a new measure for teaching quality at universities will be put in place to assess those of high-quality.

A so-called teaching REF or TEF (teaching excellence framework) has been on the cards for a while now, with the former universities and science minister, David Willetts, regarded by some as the source of the idea. The TEF will ensure that higher education institutions concentrate on high-quality teaching, and that staff are able to earn a promotion for teaching ability rather than on research alone, and hopefully this will lead to greater parity between teaching and research at universities. 

The government want the introduction of the TEF to drive up standards of teaching, recognise excellent teaching, and offer clear financial and reputational incentives to make “good” teaching even better. The framework will include “outcome-focused” metrics so that universities devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect. Willetts has previously mentioned that teaching is by far the weakest aspect of English higher education. 

Currently, many brilliant universities are basing their decisions on research alone. For example, until 18th May, due to a Facebook page of more than 2,000 likes and a viral petition, the University of Surrey’s Politics department faced the axe. The department had come 6th in the Guardian league table, and had a 97% student satisfaction in 2014 among politics students, whilst a senior lecturer in the department won the Vice-Chancellor’s Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence and the British International Studies Association–Higher Education Academy Award for Excellence in Teaching International Studies in 2013-14. However, in the REF (research excellence framework, from which the government allocates funding) the department didn’t score highly, it being placed 50th out of 56 politics and international studies departments in the UK, and this led to it’s demise. 

How will teaching be measured?

The framework to be used will be “outcome-focused” with a clear set of criteria and metrics. There are a variety of ways in which teaching quality can be measured, and one potential way often put forward is the idea of “learning gain” or “value added”. This could involve “fairly basic cognitive tests” administered to students “on a survey basis in their first term and their final term”, or a range of possible methods including “standardised tests”, which would measure “the acquisition of certain skills” and could be “administered to students either as part of their formative or summative assessment for their degree or as an additional exercise alongside the course”. The tests could be “discipline-specific, or focus on generic skills”.

Other methods could include “measuring the progress in students’ achievement by comparing the difference between grades at two points in time”. 

Other measures which are under consideration for the TEF include the number of disadvantaged students admitted to a university and their “journey travelled”.

Other key issue to be determined includes whether the framework will be a continuous exercise or take place at a point in time that could even be alongside the REF. 

It is thought that a timetable for introduction of the TEF has been discussed by government but is yet to be settled. The government is expected to set up a series of advisory groups to feed into the autumn Green Paper on the TEF, which is likely to set out principles rather than an exact framework, and would be followed by a formal consultation. The framework itself would then be developed and piloted - but sources expect pilots to happen “sooner rather than later”. 

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George Osborne announced the cuts to student mainentance grants last week, along with the notion that universities can raise their tuition fees if they are deemed to have "high-quality teaching". Photograph: altogetherfool via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Is the TEF a good thing?

In an age where the student is the consumer, this is just one more thing that students want to know about before spending all their money on a degree where they learn very little. If we believe that students should be allowed to understand what they are buying into before they buy it, then yes, the TEF is a good idea.

And in some ways I wish I had this information before I’d gone to university. I doubt it would have changed my decision as to where to go, but the teaching, feedback and assessment on my course was terrible. If you did well in first year, and you “got it”, you’d achieve through to final year, however for those who didn’t gain a 1st or 2.1 in first year getting one later down the line was a nigh on impossible task. That would have been something I’d like to have known before embarking on a degree. 

I also think it’s important to congratulate those that are good at teaching. It’s a skill that few people have, and if they are an expert they should be harnessing it and passing it on. Having leaders in the field at a university can encourage those that need a little help - perhaps the ones still using their 10-year-old slides!

However, the notion of a TEF does question what a university is for. Lecturers, who will most probably have come to work at the university to undertake research, and claim that a university's main ambition should be to produce high-quality research, will probably call for the government to stop meddling and let them get on with what they are there to do best.

Sources: Budget 2015: fees can rise for universities with 'high-quality teaching'; Jo Johnson unveils teaching REF plans; Government to 'open higher education market' to new providers; Poor students' cognitive gain may play role in TEF; Abolishing student grants and raising fees above £9,000 heaps more debt on poorest students; Does the sector need a teaching REF?.

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