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A Trial by Fire: The Teaching Excellence Framework

Monday 05-12-2016 - 15:50

University of Reading Students' Union Education Officer Niall Hamilton tells us why the TEF needs to be stopped before it decimates the higher education sector.

"It's important to remember this is just a trial." 

"Yeah, a trial by fire."

On Monday 21 November, I lost complete faith in the future of higher education. I attended the 'Year Two Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) Provider Briefing', run by the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) on behalf of the government.

Now, I'm sure many of you are aware I am not the biggest fan of the TEF. I, along with countless academics, students' unions, sector bodies, and think tanks, do not believe it is an adequate measure of teaching quality. I also believe the way it couples these dubious measures of teaching quality with fees will plunge students into even more debt. In short, I think it’s unfair, unjust and will promote elitism.

But, I went to the briefing with an open mind. I thought I would ask important questions students may have, such as, how the subject level development would work, how universities will expect students to contribute to submissions, and how postgraduate fees would be affected. To which the answers were: 'I don't know', 'it's a learning curve' and 'let's not talk about fees'.

One thing that became clear, the government are not interested in the terrible impact this will have on our education.

When the conference was posed with the question, "How do we get students engaged in the TEF submission?" the overwhelming reply from both students and university staff was to remove the link between TEF and fees. But it was clear that HEFCE’s hands were tied, and Instead of being able to address these clear concerns, the only thing they could say was, “let's stop talking about fees and more about the Framework”.

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of not being able to talk about one without the other, not until they are split.

When asked by university staff what the benefit of entering the TEF would be for an institution that was going to get a low score that would drive a wedge between students and staff, and lead to reduced numbers of international students and reputational damage, there was a deafening silence. 

What was even more concerning was the government’s guidance when it came to students’ unions. It was explicitly stated, “If your students' unions refuse to cooperate there are other methods of getting student feedback". So much for that partnership agenda we’ve all been talking about. What might have seemed like throw away comments about that all-elusive ‘student voice’ illustrated a very worrying intent to delegitimize students' unions – the homes of democratic and representative student voice – and replace them with randomly selected students. It undermines the whole stated point of the TEF.

So the great TEF issue now has three major worrying aspects - it is not a measure of teaching quality, it will drive educational inequality and damage social mobility, AND the whole framework is being rushed through by a Minister with very little experience in the sector, unable to ensure his delivery team are equipped to answer simple questions, and showing a complete disregard for the importance of partnership working and the student voice.

It's now become very clear that not just for students, but for the sake of the sector, we have to ensure the TEF is not implemented, both locally and nationally. We must use all the tools in our arsenal, including the NSS boycott, to convince our university to turn back on the framework.

In the words of an academic in the back row of the conference, "Does the government want to decimate the sector?" I sincerely hope not. But it’s up to us to stop it.

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