Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.

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5 Comments on “Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    TEF as a *disruptor* of traditional elitism by creating some new elitism is an interesting (postmodern) concept, somewhat ironic. I happen to believe that the point in academia should be to consider the merits of any arguments, including TEF- omitted here – rather than gains which suit the characteristics of a particular institution, sadly universities have abdicated long ago on speaking to government with a collective voice rather than scrambling for rankings, and in doing so much of their moral authority has vanished forever.


    • Anna, I didn’t mention a new elitism – indeed that is exactly what I don’t want. I don’t want elitism of any kind, old or new. Rather, I want recognition of excellence in diversity: that there isn’t just one acceptable model of higher education mission. There is no question at all that TEF has taken us a step in that direction.

      The opposition to TEF is based on two different arguments: (a) that you shouldn’t do this sort of thing at all, because comparing universities in rankings creates a managerial imperative to subject free thinking to business-driven operational targets; or (b) that you can or even should do this sort of thing, as long as it re-confirms the accepted hierarchy. To be frank, the first of these objections became inoperable once we all (rightly) decided that higher education was for everyone and not just social elites; the second one is just nonsense.

      That doesn’t of course deny that any institution can be badly or improperly led, whatever the system; not just by management teams, but also by established collective groups who bully others to protect their accumulated privileges.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Ferdinand, you might not want a new elitism, but that is exactly what happens when you have some institutions receiving a gold medal and others a bronze, you create, willy nilly, a new hierarchy.
        TEF does nothing to challenge collective groups with their accumulated privileges, as you put it, it only increases and exacerbates the deep divisions within the sector, which is not good news for anyone in the long run. Divide et impera the Romans used to say!
        Also, it seems to me that your account of the arguments on which the opposition to TEF is based is not comprehensive enough. The following pieces address the core issues:
        https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/1053/amp/
        http://wonkhe.com/blogs/tef-results-an-opportunity-missed-for-progress-on-equality/
        The “disruption narrative” used to describe the effect of TEF is reminiscent of the one adopted to illustrate the impact of technology on education and I thought that the MOOCs – to name only one example – had proven its inconsistency.
        HE does not need disruption per se, it needs for the mechanisms of accountability and transparency which are *already* in place to work ever more efficiently. Most staff react to news of awarded medals with a mixture of amusement and indifference, you don’t create a sense of community with medals/badges/stickers which adorn universities’ web sites in great numbers but with good communication and policies which address systemic inequalities in career progression and democratic representation.

  2. Vince Says:

    It’s rare you take so long to get to a point. Seemed to nod towards to a torn mind :-).

    On the rankings of universities. In my opinion the current system could be used to rank biscuit’s, where McVities Chocolate hobnobs and Cadbury’s fingers in the top spot of course(alternating). And taking a grab bag of whatever you feel yourself for the rest.
    Until there’s a real objectively measure for the results be they degree levels or research the whole darn thing is as meaningless as the English Uni’s all deciding they deserving of the full fee.
    Still, if I was putting a bet down on who will develop a meaningful system I’d lean to the Consumers Association not the uni funding body.
    You know something though. Many, if not all the great developments of the early 20th century came about after years of little if any publications. They were allowed to muse and contemplate. A bet was taken and generally worked. Of course it might be amusing to see just what the costs were for those that simply festered while gobbling down the Kings swan.

  3. boblawlor Says:

    Great article Ferdinand. In 1966 Daniel Bell former president of Harvard predicted: ‘The competition among the elite colleges to recruit a superior student body will become more intense’ [Reforming General Education, p. 275]. He was right and as long as teaching quality metrics are easily manipulated by the university doing the teaching while research quality metrics are far more objective and not as easily manipulated, university strategy and faculty reward systems will remain heavily biased towards research over teaching and ‘students all too often are the losers’ [Boyer, E. L., (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate p. xi]. I agree that the TEF looks like a good step in the direction of real student-centred and research-informed learning.


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