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Teaching Excellence Framework will encourage institutions to 'rebalance' teaching and research, says expert

Out-Law News | 28 Jun 2017 | 2:49 pm | 2 min. read

The results of the first Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment of UK higher education institutions will encourage them to "rebalance" their teaching and research activities, an expert has said.

Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the new rankings would encourage providers to increase their emphasis on high quality teaching and learning. The government has indicated that providers that obtain at least a 'bronze' ranking under the TEF will be able to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from the 2018/19 academic year.

"Whilst providers will welcome the ability to increase fees, this will no doubt raise the bar further in relation to the expectations of students thereby making the retention of high rankings an on-going challenge," she said.

"As every institution for which sufficient data was available obtained at least a bronze ranking, indicating that it met the rigorous national quality standards, there will be limited sanction for English universities in what is effectively a pilot year for the TEF. Instead, they can use their scores as an indication of where they should be concentrating their efforts in order to remain a rating as high as possible to attract interest from prospective students," she said.

"There will be questions about the metrics, given the high-level nature of the data used to produce the ranking, while a single catch-all ranking is not of itself a good overall judge of the student experience. In future years, the proposals are for assessors to consider the metrics on a course-by-course basis, and it will be interesting to see how this develops," she said.

The TEF was introduced as a means of measuring learning and teaching standards across the UK's higher education sector, complementing the existing Research Excellence Framework. Providers are assessed on a range of different aspects of teaching including student satisfaction, retention and the future job prospects of graduates. The assessment is based on data and not actual inspections of teaching.

The assessment was made by an independent panel of experts including academics, students and employer representatives, overseen by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Providers were awarded a 'gold', 'silver' or 'bronze' ranking, with provisional awards made where there was insufficient data to make a full assessment. The rankings will be published on Unistats and the UCAS website, alongside other information, so that they are available to prospective students.

Participation in the TEF is voluntary, and awards are valid for up to three years. Of the 295 universities, colleges and alternative providers that participated, 59 were rated gold, 116 silver and 56 were rated bronze. A further 64 providers opted to receive a provisional award. Providers are entitled to appeal their ranking, and the appeals process will conclude in August 2017.

To be awarded a gold ranking under the TEF, a provider must show that it is delivering "consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for its students". Silver is awarded to providers that deliver "high quality teaching, learning and outcomes" and that "consistently exceed" the rigorous national quality requirements, according to HEFCE.

"While every provider will be aiming for gold, this raises the question of whether the system would actually permit this on the basis that retaining a bell-curve to the rankings, with providers having the ability moving up and down the rankings, would greater achieve the government's aim of encouraging competition between providers," said universities expert Gayle Ditchburn.

"When the tuition fee cap was raised to £9,000, the government's intention was that a market would develop at different price points based on the perceived quality of providers - but virtually all providers opted for the maximum fee meaning this was not achieved. The TEF rankings have the potential to lead to differentiation in the market, in the way that was originally intended," she said.