Some Home Truths about TEF

Dr Linda Barkas (University of Sunderland), Dr Jonathan M. Scott (Northumbria University), Dr Paul Smith (University of Hull) & Nicola J. Poppitt (Teesside University)

Our recent article in the Journal of Further and Higher Education (Barkas et al., 2017) provides a critical account of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), underpinned by an overview of the policy context and other agendas exploring the rationale for implementing TEF within universities. In the paper we provide an outline of the background and context of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017; we clarify the definition of the Teaching Excellence Framework; we explore the themes underpinning the TEF; and we question the nature of the reforms and offer some concluding arguments.

The reforms, including the TEF originally proposed in the United Kingdom (UK) Government's 2016 White Paper (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS, 2016)) do not provide a 'clear sell' to the United Kingdom's (UK) Higher Education (HE) sector. The TEF is a new metrics-based initiative introduced by the UK government ostensibly to increase 'excellence' in teaching at UK HEIs. The metrics include data and statistics from the National Student Survey (NSS), benchmarks and destinations to assess teaching, learning and outcomes for students. Universities' TEF categories were announced in June 2017 (Times Higher Education, 2017) and have been awarded gold, silver or bronze status (Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), 2017).

The TEF is different from previous teaching evaluations and quality enhancement initiatives in the UK in that it attempts to offer a national framework to judge the quality of teaching. The rationale for the TEF is cloaked in the words quality and choice. And yet, there is an inherent contradiction here in that forcing universities into cost-based strategies to compete with new entrants could potentially lead to lower quality because of downward cost pressures. The further tension of 'measuring the measurement' is then compounded by introducing another category of HE provider that utilises its own quality systems. By offering degree awarding powers to further education colleges and other new private sector entrants, this White Paper may potentially create a third tier: a non-research, teaching super-intensive 'post-2016 university.'

Whereas some important developments are suggested, in many instances the document appears to be theoretically mismatched, with no clear lines of reasoning, supported by several examples of highly selective statistics, and distorted or poorly supported rationale. The 2016 HE White Paper is also ambiguous in places: for example, it emphasises the further dominance of a business modelled 'market' approach to HE whilst, on the other hand, the proposals are paralleled by a draft of contradictory regulation of standards. The main contradiction in the White Paper and the TEF is, therefore that the reforms and the metric system strive to measure two competing ideological views of the role of HE in society. It is also not clear whether this mixed approach of marketisation and regulation will work in practice.

The TEF potentially has various problematic issues in terms both of its design, implementation, outcomes and impact on a range of stakeholders in HE. For example, this process could present further challenges for academic staff as they may have to engineer existing programmes to highlight areas where 'teaching excellence' is emphasised rather than students' learning development.

In the article, we express concern over the narrative in the 2016 White Paper. While the rhetoric of a TEF appears positive, the implementation of such a scheme is conceptually flawed. It is hindered still further by a complex quality metrics system that demands yet another layer of bureaucracy in what is arguably an already micro-managed system of HE. The gradual marketisation of HE has coincided with changing expectations surrounding universities' roles.

Looking back over the discourse of change in HE, what has been learned? Has HE been able to respond to the UK central Government's demands for economic competitiveness? The answer is multi-faceted: while HE has opened up to more opportunities, it has had to deal with a range of competing demands which has led to the management of bureaucracy taking an ever-greater role in universities. Any claims that the HE 2016 White Paper (BIS, 2016: now the Higher Education and Research Act, 2017) makes must be genuine and should be underpinned, ironically, by evidence-based research to ensure that the objectives of the reforms are clear.


1- Barkas, L.A., Scott, J.M., Smith, P.J., and Poppitt, N. (2017) 'Tinker, Tailor, Policy-Maker: Can the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework deliver its objectives?', Journal of Further and Higher Education.

BIS. 2016. Higher Education: Success as a Knowledge Economy - White Paper. London: BIS.
HEFCE. 2017. About the TEF. Available from: Accessed 22 July 2017.
Higher Education and Research Act. 2017. Available from: Accessed 22 July 2017.
Times Higher Education. 2017. Teaching excellence framework (TEF) results 2017. Accessed 25 July 2017.

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