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2 May 2024

How the TEF can debunk the biggest myths about higher education


Helena Vine
Lead Policy Officer (England), QAA

It felt like the ink was barely dry on submissions for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) 2023 before the sector was already starting to think about the next iteration of the exercise.


Because providers are engaged in the continual enhancement of their provision, we at QAA have produced what we believe to be the first open-access qualitative analysis of all the TEF 2023 submissions and panel statements, to offer timely support to providers not only to succeed in the next TEF, but also to use what we've learnt from this iteration to inform the effective enhancement of their own quality and practices. While the TEF submissions focus more on the ‘best bits’ of practice in a provider, they nonetheless lift the lid on what’s really happening on the ground to deliver the student experience.


Our report, launched today, shares our key points of learning, broken down by each feature of the student experience examined by the TEF panel. Our first intention had been to share patterns of practice found among providers receiving higher ratings. But these examples of innovative practice taking place across the sector are as varied as they are valid, and our report explores this rich range of initiatives.


Our main takeaway from this research is something which we think will be particularly helpful to a diverse sector that isn’t, and shouldn’t, all be doing the same thing: the importance of how the sector articulates and justifies the things that it does.


The TEF panel statements don't judge how innovative and imaginative a provider has been. Instead, they commend those providers who have gone beyond descriptions of what they deliver, and explained why they are delivering it, how it works in their context and for their unique mix of students, and what impact it had on the learning experience.


This offers a useful lesson for the next iteration of the TEF and the enhancement of provision, but it’s also a useful lesson for debunking the myths about what happens inside providers and tackling the challenging narratives that emerge from them.


Myth 1: Students have it too easy these days, you don’t need to work hard to get a degree

For every feature the TEF panel considered - seven in total - a provider was rated either as offering ‘outstanding quality’ or ‘very high quality’ or the panel concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to rate it as either.


When it came to course content and delivery (the category known as SE2), what distinguished ‘outstanding’ from ‘very high quality’ was the ability to demonstrate that students were actively engaged in their learning and stretched to their fullest potential.


Students certainly aren’t being let off lightly - provider submissions include examples such as curriculum co-design, emphasis on independent study, rigorous assessment standards or strategically timed feedback designed to stimulate motivation.


They show that, contrary to popular narratives, it’s not ‘easier than ever’ to get a degree - and indeed that providers are constantly innovating to stretch their students. And, while there is a necessary balance with wellbeing, student feedback and submissions highlighted how this supports them to thrive and feel motivated to push themselves.


Myth 2: Providers and academics only care about research - teaching is an afterthought

The balance between research and teaching has always been a hot topic and one rationale for creating the TEF was to enhance the quality of teaching practice. The TEF rewards those who can demonstrate the links between their teaching practices and their research activities. Examples of where a provider had lauded their own research credentials but failed to link it back to the student experience were called out by the panel. Submissions also demonstrated efforts to achieve greater parity between teaching and research staff, with career frameworks developed to better recognise teaching and increased promotion rates highlighted, even if most of these initiatives are still fairly new.


Submissions rated outstanding went even further - including their professional services staff members in their approaches to professional development in recognition of their contribution to the student experience. The TEF provides a framework for providers to tell their research story in a way that puts students right at the centre of those activities - through quality teaching, research-informed learning and building students’ own research identities.


Myth 3: Providers are just concerned with academics and don’t support their students enough

Provider submissions understandably talked about improving their students’ skills and knowledge. But the descriptions of academic support and the learning environment lift the lid on just how much providers do to support their students holistically. Fostering a sense of belonging, building peer communities, delivering mental health support and support for students with disabilities (both before and after diagnosis) are all examples of what constitutes the lifecycle of wraparound provision, beginning long before a student starts their course and continuing long after.


There are many ongoing debates about providers’ wider responsibilities to their student populations, whether that’s in terms of duty of care, mental health provision or preventing sexual harassment. Taken together, the TEF submissions demonstrate that providers know they have an obligation to support their students personally as well as academically, they know you can’t have one without the other, and they’re doing an immense amount of work to deliver on this.


The TEF has taught the whole sector a lot of lessons (including, but that go well beyond, the reflections we share in our report). It lifts the lid on what’s actually happening to deliver a quality student experience.


Our report seeks to present sets of actionable insights designed to help providers enhance their provision. But it also charts a compelling narrative which the sector has told, through this process, about its most effective and impactful work. Improving how we communicate and share that narrative won’t only help in the next round of TEF, but should also strengthen in public and policy debates the position of a sector which has experienced significant pressures and strains of late.