Tuesday, 12 January 2016

TEF and the Missing Metric

My thoughts on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) have changed a lot over the last twelve months. When the first suggestions of the TEF were raised in late 2014, I was quietly optimistic. As a PhD student who can't wait to teach, I was hopeful that perhaps the TEF would accord my future labour the same prestige as the work being done by research-focused peers. I (although not with much hope) pondered whether this might lead to the establishment of two career tracks in academia, and that each one would be respected equally.

I still quietly hope those things, although with much less certainty. We're still at Green Paper stage, which means that there are precious few details. And, for me, the TEF will be all about the specifics - what is measured, how it's measured, how these measures are used. There is one metric that is missing, which I think is the single most important metric that a TEF could introduce.

The TEF must measure the proportion of teaching that is delivered by staff on part-time, fixed-term contracts. An ideal TEF would require institutions to provide a breakdown of how many staff are employed on part-time, fixed-term contracts. It would also require institutions to outline what proportion of teaching is delivered by staff on these contracts,  alongside an explanation of why this is the case.

 I can't imagine this measure would be popular, but it could benefit for students, for staff, and institutions' reputations. 

Undergraduate students would be better able to read prospectuses critically.
There aren't many instructions that don't promise their students access to 'leaders in the field' or 'world-class experts.' Having worked closely with students, this is often something they cite as being misleading about prospectuses. Incoming students would be better able to question these claims if they see that 90% of undergraduate teaching on their course is actually delivered by short-term, hourly-paid staff. If, as the government claims, the TEF is supposed to offer students the means to make more informed choices, then this data set would be an obvious way to do it.

Staff currently on insecure contracts would benefit. 
For institutions, an obvious way to mitigate any reputation damage (and resulting fall in recruitment this might cause) would be to alter the contracts they offer teaching staff. I'm relying here on the fact institutions generally want the simplest solution to a challenge. I concede that some HEIs need these sorts of contracts to deliver good teaching - the most obvious example I can think of is one-to-one music tuition, which has to be flexible to respond to the number of students who play a given instrument in a given academic year.

But most institutions don't rely on insecure contracts to address their teaching needs: they rely on them address their financial concerns. And for all those staff who currently deliver the full range of teaching on what amounts to less than the minimum wage, a change in contracts could be career-altering. would be fantastic. If you don't have supplement your teaching income with work elsewhere, you have more time to dedicate to teaching.

And this, in turn, would benefit institutions. 
Finally, part-time, fixed-term staff are not in a position to provide teaching excellence. This isn't through lack of dedication, skill or passion. It's simply because humans have finite resources, be they financial, intellectual or emotional. Moving staff off insecure contracts would enable staff to teach better: they could have access to induction, training and support to provide better teaching. They'd have enough money that they don't need to work elsewhere. Their teaching would improve. And students would notice. And this would enhance institutions' standing.


Ultimately, I still have reservations about the TEF. But I'm pragmatic enough to recognise that it is probably going to happen. And I'm also cynical enough to think that it's perfectly possible for institutions to game the system, no matter which metrics are chosen.

However, if the TEF is going to happen, I think we should use metrics that might provide some material benefit to those people within the system.

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