By Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer, The Physiological Society
The Physiological Society has worked on higher education policy for many years. The key issue in this area is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), designed to improve teaching quality and give students more information when selecting their course.
The TEF is being developed in iterations, with attention focused at the moment on how to split its assessment down to subject level. The Department for Education (DfE) is developing this with input from many sector representatives, including Universities UK (UUK).
The Society convened a meeting with UUK and representatives from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society of Biology, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Statistical Society and the Institute of Physics. This gave the opportunity for a wide range of views from the STEM sector to be aired and ideas for the future TEF to be discussed in detail.
The first phase of discussion covered the operation of the current institutional-level TEF. This is the first version of TEF to base its awards on metrics, covering the areas of teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes. There is general acceptance that these high level themes are appropriate, but much less satisfaction with the specific metrics chosen within them. The benchmarking process to set institutional targets is also contentious. The metrics are supplemented by a written submission, but it is acknowledged that the main element of the result is the metric scores. Exceed enough benchmarks and a gold award is given; fall below enough and you rate bronze. Given this is the case, there is a disturbing lack of trust in the National Student Survey and its reporting on student satisfaction. Similarly, the Destination of Leavers from HE (DLHE) survey only gives a snapshot six months after graduation, at which point many graduates have not yet entered their careers or made significant decisions.
The Society has long focused on the reward and recognition of teaching in HE. All participants agreed that the TEF as it stands does not touch on the status of teaching within universities, even though a good way to increase teaching quality would be to encourage and reward those staff members who focus on teaching. The trend in reality is towards increasing casualisation of teaching, including the use of zero-hours contracts and other non-permanent arrangements for teaching. A better appreciation of teaching staff by the TEF would be likely to help it achieve its original goals.
The conversation then moved on to proposals to increase the specificity of the TEF, moving to subject-level assessment. Current plans envision a blend of subject- and institution-level factors being combined to produce an overall score. Awards may potentially be given to institutions and departments separately. It is proving difficult to define the correct scale to identify a “subject”. Proposals exist for a TEF which combines certain schools and courses into units of assessment, but these may not be universally accepted. An alternative under consideration is an assessment of how much departments deviate (above or below) from the overall quality rating of the entire institution. The model used by Athena SWAN for department and institutional awards was discussed and is being evaluated.
The participants considered the meeting to be very successful, and the UUK representatives were pleased to receive a different viewpoint to that from the heads of institutions. The Society hopes to convene this group again and continue working to make the TEF as effective as possible.
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