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TEF vs. REF: are teaching and research now adversaries?

Posted by on December 5, 2016

By Henry Lovett, policy & public affairs officer, The Physiological Society

Lord Willetts and Bridget Lumb

At the recent Labour, Conservative and SNP party conferences, The Physiological Society asked  policy makers to consider an important question: ‘TEF vs. REF: Are Teaching and Research Now Adversaries?’

The successful fringe events discussed how the Government’s development of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will relate to the already existing Research Excellence Framework (REF). TEF is a way to measure the strength of teaching at UK universities and reward the institutions accordingly with a rating, and perhaps more importantly, a fee increase. This should then provide prospective students with some more information on which to base their choice of institution. Another consequence may be that universities start to see their teaching as a more important indicator of their stature, whereas in the past their research strength has been the largest contributor to their reputation.

These sound like laudable aims; indeed, who would argue against better courses and informed choices? Not us. However, as is so often the case, there is the risk of unintended consequences. With the separate Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks, the actual teaching and research activities going on in universities risk becoming entirely separated as well. Staff may be railroaded into only teaching or only researching, moving away from the tradition of ‘scholarship’ covering both areas. Changes to courses as a result may lead to them bearing no relation to the specialisms at the university where they are taught, which could give the students a reduced insight into the cutting edge of their field. Courses could also become much more didactic, putting students into the mind-set of turning up, learning some facts, and leaving to get a job; rather than engaging in self-directed inquiry and learning the transferable skills of a rounded education and experience of research.

So there are risks inherent in the Government’s approach to promoting teaching, but what about measuring teaching quality and telling students? Surely that is a good idea. However, the proposed figures which will be used to measure it don’t directly relate to it. Student satisfaction, via the vehicle of the National Student Survey, depends on a lot of factors. A challenging, insightful course may not seem as satisfying at the time as an easy one that bumps up your average grade. Student retention and graduate job destinations also depend on external factors including ethnicity, background, geography, the economy, and more. That’s before you even get to the subject studied and the reputation of the university. Universities will be judged on a great deal that is outside of their control, as plans currently stand.

These were the topics of conversation at the Party Conferences, and happily, the policymakers were open to discussion. They know the sector has these concerns, and are keen to hear how to address them. The Society has produced a report with recommendations on how to improve the changes coming to Higher Education. These cover diverse areas for improvement such as more effective measures of learning gain through peer review and the appropriate recognition of skilled teachers and educational researchers; in addition to highlighting the need to pay attention to the potential impact resulting from public perception of university rankings. If you want to join in the conversation on this issue, please contact The PhySoc.

Read The Physiological Society report: TEF vs REF: Are Teaching and Research Now Adversaries?

Further reading: Read the Royal Society of Biology’s response to the TEF consultation.

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