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Ed Southgate takes a closer look at the Teaching Excellence Framework after the news that the University of Bristol was awarded ‘Silver’ for the quality of its teaching.

Attending university is becoming more of a cultural expectation within the UK, especially now that the cap on student numbers has been lifted. With this, and the gradual increase in tuition fees, university league tables are becoming more prominently scrutinised to ensure students end up in a good institution. For Bristol, it is going well. For students, the case is less clear.

On Thursday, the University of Bristol was awarded ‘Silver’ in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  This suggests that drop-out rates are low, indicating that the university has tailored its courses to retain students’ academic curiosity and that students are satisfied with both the quality of teaching and the quality of feedback they receive.

The TEF in isolation is incredibly misleading for students who want a good quality education

It also shows that students from the University of Bristol move into employment with relative ease following graduation – a result welcomed by many students I’m sure, as a frequently-used reason for attending university is “to get a better job”.

You may have noticed that all these positives are positives from the student perspective. Indeed, the TEF’s main aim is to reflect the quality of teaching and student satisfaction within universities. This undeniably is good news as student satisfaction must be crucial and central to universities success.

Having said that, it is surprising that over half of Russell Group universities were not awarded ‘Gold’ and, whilst Bristol must reflect on why it missed the top grade, we must question whether student feedback alone is enough to determine a university’s overall standard. We must, of course, have rigid assessment if we are to drive up standards, but are British universities really that bad? I doubt it.

Consider this: if a university ranked between 601st and 800th in the world (Coventry) is awarded ‘Gold’ when a university ranked 25th in the world (LSE) is awarded ‘Bronze’, does the TEF (or any one ranking system viewed in isolation for that matter) give a full picture?

This is especially significant when important decisions are at stake.

The main student controversy surrounding the TEF has been its link to raising tuition fees. Perhaps for most of the student body, the anger stems mainly from a resentment towards tuition fees in general as opposed to the nature of the TEF, but even those favourable to fees must ask whether the TEF is credible enough to raise them.

Our university can deliver on both teaching and research – a crucial combination

Bristol’s TEF result is particularly impressive when aligned with other results this year, like the QS World Rankings which rated the University of Bristol as 9th in the UK and 44th in the world. This ranking largely looks at the research undertaken by a university; together, the results show that our university can deliver on both teaching and research – a crucial combination, but a combination which is not focused upon.

Further to this, students are certainly experts when it comes to how the receive what it being taught, their attitude to learning and the value of their feedback, but this does not go far enough. I tend to agree with Professor John Rafferty who, in an online article for The Telegraph, highlighted that we should also be looking at how many qualified teachers are teaching in universities. A qualified teacher, after all, generally makes for a better teacher.

The metrics used are important, but they simply aren’t enough.  Much has been made in the past about how apparently random the metrics used are; there is, for instance, no clear link between graduate employment rates and the quality of teaching.

But I would suggest that this is the main problem with the TEF. Its aims are solely focused on giving students assurance that they will receive a high quality of teaching. Whilst this is important, a high-quality of teaching is different from a high-quality of what is being taught.

Therefore, the level of research at a university must also be taken into serious account. Indeed, whilst graduate employment rates may not be linked to the quality of teaching, it is linked to the quality of what is being taught. If you end up in a high-skilled job, it is presumably because you have been taught to a high standard; why do we not make this relationship more explicit and, by extension, make the grading system more credible?

We want university students to receive world-leading education

Undoubtedly the TEF addresses serious concerns that research at university was prioritised over students, but we do not want this imbalance to shift in the other direction. We want university students to receive world-leading education in the most recent discoveries; a great teacher teaching old stuff does not do this. New research does this.

The TEF in isolation is incredibly misleading for students who want a good quality education that can give them the necessary skills to enter a good job. The TEF must adapt and be viewed alongside other results if it wants to provide a credible assessment of UK universities.


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