tef-policylabOver the summer, Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, announced his plans for higher education in a speech to Universities UK. At the time his plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) were at an early stage. Now, just a few months on with the publishing of a Green Paper on higher education, the idea has developed considerably with the ambition of transforming university teaching. However, the Green Paper poses many questions for the sector to respond to.

The Royal Society recently hosted a Policy Lab event, looking at whether it is possible for a one size fits all TEF to cover the breadth of higher education. The discussion showed how considerable the breadth of teaching in the sector is, and that it is constantly evolving. This means defining excellent teaching is difficult, never mind accurately measuring it.

The scale of the challenge does not make the goal any less worthwhile. As the Royal Society has often commented, the UK is clearly world leading in its research. However, Bahram Bekhradnia, the President of HEPI, suggested there is more variation in teaching quality. He argued that there is more to be done to ensure that teaching at UK universities is held in the same high esteem as research.

There was a feeling that with academics having only so many hours in a day, there needs to be a balance of priorities so that research and teaching complement each other. The best academics are already using their research to inform and improve their teaching: a good TEF would be one which leads to even more of this good teaching practice.

What also came across strongly from the discussion was that for the TEF to be successful, it must account for the enormous variation between disciplines. Excellence looks very different between music, history and physics. If assessments and measures are taken at a discipline level, then it will be clearer what teaching a prospective student can expect. There was a concern that the TEF could lead to perverse incentives for universities to emphasise certain subjects. This could be a challenge particularly acute in high cost courses such as those with laboratory based practical work.

The view in the room was that we are not starting from an entirely blank page. Many universities have already put processes in place to strengthen their teaching, thanks in part to the Quality Assurance Agency and the National Student Survey. For example, many institutions expect their teachers to undertake some form of teaching qualification. The TEF needs to build on these established good practices, rather than try to reinvent the teaching wheel.

The Royal Society will be looking at how the challenges discussed can be addressed in its upcoming response to the Green Paper. You can listen to the full audio from the event.