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‘TEF: What next?’ A report on a BERA HE SIG seminar

Amanda French Colin McCaig

The BERA special interest group (SIG) for higher education (HE) recently held a very successful themed seminar for BERA members on 16 March at Birmingham City University. There was a full programme covering eight presentations from across the UK which, over the course of the day, allowed us to discuss the impact of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), since the first assessment round, on the pedagogies and practices of individual higher education teachers, as well as exploring the changes it has begun make with regard to wider institutional behaviours by shifting policy and focus around teaching excellence.

On an institutional level, Sanja Djerasimovic explored how TEF (along with the Research Excellence Framework [REF]) might help HE institutions to engage more with community-based learning. Aneta Hayes’ presentation looked at the need for TEF metrics to capture interculturality as an aspect of teaching excellence, and as part of their commitment to international students. Problems with compartmentalising students’ learning experiences was picked up by Graeme Pedlingham, who argued that TEF needs to inform and encourage holistic and student-centered university approaches to supporting student mental wellbeing through teaching and learning. Jan Bamford and colleagues’ case study of TEF-driven changes in a post-92 urban HE institution ended the day by showing how her institution has implemented a programme of university-wide changes in order to improve student outcomes.

With regard to the various HE stakeholders, Jayne Mitchel’s paper explored opportunities for engaging students more proactively in debates about how TEF might directly impact on their choice of institution, particularly given the potential link between TEF outcomes and future fee-setting and institutional reputations. This discussion of the direct effects of TEF – and the gaming of TEF – was developed by Helen Lees, an alternative educator, who asked whether TEF assessments could threaten the livelihoods, status, working identity and wellbeing of academics, in a presentation using only Microsoft Paint and two live-searched photographs. More specifically, Amanda French discussed how TEF metrics impact differently and often negatively on different groups of staff such as women and BAME lecturers, as they inevitably reflect entrenched inequalities in the sector.

Three of the papers had a distinctively ‘policy’ focus. Building on the work of Beech (2017), Ben Kotzee and Adam Matthews (a PhD student) reported back on their corpus study of all 232 provider submissions made to the TEF. Their content analysis revealed, perhaps not surprisingly, that ‘research-led teaching’, ‘learning gain’ and ‘employability’ all featured highly in statements from successful submissions, while other factors such as ‘widening participation’, ‘flexible learning’ and ‘part-time study’ appeared to be afforded less importance. Halina Harvey, adopting a similar policy and critical discourse analysis approach, focussed on how HE policies, like TEF, often marginalise the input of teaching academics, whose input to the whole TEF process is subsequently undervalued. Colin McCaig’s paper situated the TEF in the wider frame of recent HE marketisation legislation (the Higher Education and Research Act 2017), and concluded that the TEF was ill-suited to contribute to a tuition fee differential or enhanced student choice – the two main stated aims of the policy. Consequently, as a market lever TEF seems like a ‘fish out of water’ in terms of its capacity to deliver.

‘The breadth and passion of the discussions initiated by these presentations reinforced what we already knew: namely, that critical thinking about the effects and implications of TEF is alive and well in British universities.’

The breadth and passion of the discussions initiated by these presentations reinforced what we already knew: namely, that critical thinking about the effects and implications of TEF is alive and well in British universities. It is also clear that TEF is stimulating different ways of thinking about capturing teaching excellence that move way beyond simple compliance with government set metrics and its preoccupation with external markers and rankings.

Finally, this seminar demonstrated the important role that BERA plays as a vehicle for initiating and sustaining a high level of informed debate between HE practitioners across the country. The space that this SIG provided emphasised to all participants the importance of teaching staff continuing to share and explore their experiences of TEF, both positive and negative. The convenors of the HE SIG, Amanda French and Colin McCaig, are therefore keen to extend and develop the conversations set in motion at the seminar, and will be asking for contributions to their SIG slot at this year’s BERA conference.

Further details of and materials from this event, including abstracts of each presentation, can be downloaded here.