Going for Gold, the Latest News from TEF

There has been a flurry of activity over the last couple of weeks around TEF and I thought that it would be useful just to bring you up to date and say something about the possible implications for Swansea.

The members of the TEF Panel were announced a couple of weeks ago now. This is a fairly mixed group, primarily of senior leaders from across the sector, most of whom are, or have been Pro-Vice Chancellors with responsibility for learning and teaching. This is good as it will be an ‘expert’ panel although it is, perhaps inevitably, reflective of what might be called an ‘establishment view’ of what constitutes quality in learning and teaching. We have also been assured that there will be Welsh representation on the panel and that both panel members and assessors will be given training that includes reference to the specific issues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The most important development, however, is the publication of the Teaching Excellence Framework, Year Two Specification. This outlines in much more detail how the next round of the TEF, submitted in January 2017 and applicable for the academic year 2017/18, will function. Many of the basic elements of this, such as the metrics to be used and the 15 page document, were known already and there are only limited changes to this. The main change is in the nomenclature of the awards and the methodology by which different levels of the TEF are awarded.

The press has had a field day with the decision to go with ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ as the three possible outcomes of the TEF. These were chosen, we are told, because nobody wants to see British HE institutions merely ‘meeting expectations’ (the original third level descriptor) and the view that ‘outstanding’ and ‘excellent’ are probably indistinguishable and confusing. Gold – silver – bronze is certainly clear, but, of course, it comes with all kinds of other baggage as the press has reminded us.

The real questions will sit around the way in which ‘bronze’ is perceived beyond the sector. Will it be seen, as is hoped, as being a positive designation (bronze in the Olympics is actually quite an achievement, although it is also true that in the Olympics most people do not get any medal and in TEF everybody will get something, even if ‘only a bronze’). Will it, on the other hand, be seen as third class or third rate? It is difficult to say. I am fairly certain that those who get a bronze will want to spin it as a real achievement in itself, others may be more circumspect. It is worth noting that in Athena SWAN a bronze award is an achievement, again largely because there are still many departments and institutions without any award, but also because everybody has to go through a bronze before they can move on to silver or gold. That will not be the case in TEF.

The methodology is, however, much more difficult to explain in simple terms. Each metric will be reviewed against a benchmark and then flagged depending on whether it is significantly above or below that benchmark. There are then clear rules that say, for example, that having at least three positive flags and no negative ones, will lead to the assumption of a gold, and having two or more negative flags, irrespective of the number of positive flags, will mean the initial assumption will be bronze. Beyond this it will be for elements of the 15 page document to convince the assessors, and ultimately the panel, that an institution should remain in the category flagged by the metrics or should be moved up or down.

In practical terms, both because of the averaging out of metrics over three years, and the particular complications associated with creating the benchmarks, it is very difficult for us to predict, at least on the first run through, what flags we will have. We will have to wait until we see the metrics later this month. It is only at that point, in practice, that we can then decide what kind of narrative we need to tell in the 15 page document to address the distribution of flags in the metrics. We are, however, reflecting on other elements of the 15 page document and collating some the stories we need to tell, the evidence we need to support our narrative, and the particularly good examples that will inform the assessors and the panel of the quality of our learning and teaching.

So will we get gold? It is very difficult to say at this stage. The vast majority of the HE institutions will find that the flag system lands them within the silver bracket (and that is how the whole exercise is designed to work). It will not be immediately obvious whether the distribution of flags places any one institution closer to gold or closer to bronze, they are likely to be too mixed and confused to make an easy judgement. However, when we receive our metrics in late October, we will know what we have to do in order to convince the assessors and the panel that Swansea really ought to be rated gold in terms of the quality of its learning and teaching. That is, after all where we would always aspire to be.

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