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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In his recent piece for WonkHE, Chris Husbands, the chair of the TEF panel, wrote in order to “bust” five myths about the TEF.

Identifying these as “punishing widening participation”, a “metrics-only” approach, the weakness of the “provider statement”, “pre-ordained outputs”, and an exclusion of the “student view”, Husbands goes some distance to allaying a few fears. Indeed, it is good to hear that institutional narratives will play a core role here.

The problem, though, is that these are not the questions about the TEF that need answering. There are far more worrying aspects of the exercise that Husbands has dodged.

Liz Morrish has already written a set of 10 great responses. In fact, she probably does this better than I do. But, at an unnamed person’s request, I wrote five of mine:

1. TEF doesn’t actually measure teaching

The proxy measures being used by the TEF do not actually measure teaching. They measure graduate employment statistics, various aspects of student satisfaction, and student retention.

These are all, in the current iteration of the TEF, aggregated up to the institutional level, leaving the staff morale of good teachers on the ground in the firing line.

How, though, does the quality of my teaching in an English Literature classroom relate to the ability of students to find jobs afterwards (at a time of economic uncertainty and the turmoil of “Brexit”)? There are also many reasons why students drop out, beyond poor teaching (and beyond institutional control).

2. TEF is an economic and policy instrument of “market exit”

While there has been uproar from the NUS about institutions being allowed to charge fees with an inflationary rise – meaning that their NSS results will be used to penalise future generations (on which more below) – the real kick for institutions who need to pay their staff is the pegging at inflationary levels. Those who score in the lower brackets of the infantilising gold, silver, and bronze categories of TEF will soon find that they will have to make cuts to survive.

These cuts will lead to a downward spiral. As institutions lay off staff, their quality marks will further degrade and they will be forced to either take out long-term and ill-considered bonds/loans or risk the “market exit” promised by the HE & Research Bill.

Variegated fees by centralised governmental intervention is the name of the game and TEF is the lackey of this future.

3. TEF will be used to restrict overseas applicants

Clearly, HE policy is hardly in the control of the Minister at present, as seen at the recent Conservative Party Conference. As the government decides that it wants to restrict the ability of all universities to recruit students from overseas on the basis of “the quality of course and the quality of the educational institution”, TEF becomes a powerful weapon for inward-looking nationalist sentiment.

Even though the government has not said that TEF will be used in such a way and is for now instead arbitrarily picking its favourites, Theresa May has wanted to clamp down on student immigration for some time, particularly at “courses at low ranking institutions”.

Given that this type of ranking is precisely what TEF is designed to create, it would seem naive to claim that the data it produces will not be used in such a way.

4. “Satisfaction” leads to grade inflation and is biased against women

Even among the poor metrics used by TEF, student satisfaction is bad. There is a yearly carping in the tabloids about grade inflation, but if student satisfaction is a key measure, can we presumably just create happiness and satisfaction by telling students that all of their work is wonderful?

We also know that student teaching evaluations are systemically biased against women, with male teachers consistently scoring more highly – even when, in an online learning environment, the gender was simply a fabrication for the purpose of experiment.

5. Students don’t want TEF

The NUS is threatening to boycott the NSS as a result of the link between their feedback and fee rises. “Putting students at the heart of the system”? Hardly. For an exercise that promises to listen to the student voice, the ear is some metres off the floor at the moment.