Last month 14 further education colleges were awarded the gold standard in the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for higher education providers – they actually beat more than half the top Russell Group universities taking part which failed to take gold. But will this framework encourage better teaching full-stop or will the government’s aim of allowing the top performers to increase their tuition fees create a two-tier system? And with Ofsted already embedded into the FE sector, do we really need another teaching framework?
Participation, currently voluntary, will become mandatory for all institutions offering HE in 2018-19 in a scheme that has taken two years to develop. My own college has been rated silver though I can’t say I’ve been involved – certainly no assessment of my teaching quality nor involvement of my students – and many HE staff will be similarly puzzled about where this award actually comes from.
Teachers have to work within two frameworks
Perhaps more worryingly, most staff I know are unaware of what the TEF stands for. I guess that will come later when we’ll be expected to reflect the demands of the TEF’s competence categories (gold, silver, bronze), alongside Ofsted's 1-4 rating scale that applies to core FE teaching. We’ll then face the tough challenge of incorporating into our teaching both sets of framework levels, which in this respect lack joined-up thinking.
Perhaps one reason for this is that teaching quality may not be the main priority. Underlying the whole project is the Trojan horse of fees – an excuse to justify the government’s further reconfiguration of HE funding. It lets top-rated universities and colleges bring in higher fees on the back of their awards, while other institutions won't have that freedom. FE continues to be squeezed – a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report claims colleges are still at 1990 levels of spending per pupil. People don’t realise the number of colleges in financial deficit more than doubled between 2010 and 2014.
The TEF framework is allowing larger and well-resourced colleges able to withstand austerity cuts to prosper further, while smaller, leaner colleges will struggle more financially and not attract the best staff – reflecting this government’s fascination with Darwinian social policy.
And what of the TEF’s judging criteria or metrics? The government says the scheme is taking place in the name of student choice, though students appear to have had limited involvement. In fact, student choice could suffer as colleges fight for more resources by streamlining their courses to match the framework.
FE’s sharp focus on teaching could be catching
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which runs the scheme, intends to use student satisfaction data already compiled from the national student sampling survey, along with graduate employment patterns (based on the HESA’s destination survey) that many argue do not directly correlate with so-called teaching quality. People gain high-skilled jobs for many reasons that often have little to do with quality of teaching but everything to do with who you know.
On the positive side, the framework ‘check’ on teaching could bring into sharp focus the link between employability and the currency of HE programmes being offered. It could influence later initiatives when larger FE colleges are permitted to offer their own degrees and thus encourage some level of entrepreneurship and link this with the employment market.
In addition, the traditional, healthy FE focus on teaching and putting it at the heart of learning could well translate across to HE programmes at universities where the emphasis has hitherto been on research.
TEF must not endanger teacher creativity
Above all, though, colleges will have to ensure the push to comply with framework standards is not at the expense of creativity at the heart of what I would describe as outstanding teaching.
I’ve heard of staff afraid to send students to research in the library or undertake other activities on their own for fear it’s breaking the rule that teaching contact time should mean staying with your students – surely undermining staff thinking outside the box. Yes, it may sound good to all sing from same hymn sheet, but is this worth losing the very idiosyncrasies and nuances that make good courses unique and give our colleges an individual edge.
Tightening belts has also affected continuing professional development for teachers so that they are less able to go out and learn about these external frameworks through talking to peers from other colleges. And the training that does take place is often only compliance-driven, such as safeguarding, the Prevent strategy, and embedding equality/diversity and maths/English in learning materials.
I’d single out Exeter College as one good example I know of entrepreneurism being built into both learning programmes and curriculum and making them flexible, and also forging good links with employers.
Colleges need a powerful lobby group
Exeter is a large college with the resources to match – something many smaller colleges do not have at present. That’s why we need a powerful lobby and advocacy group of large colleges representing the whole sector at ministerial level, pushing ideas and policies and then insisting on a bedding-down period of three or four years to let them take root – space that colleges just don’t have at present.
The TEF will ideally offer colleges with HE provision a chance to focus far more exclusively on teaching and learning (heeding comments from the student satisfaction data); their staff should have space to refine and extend programmes to support learners entering a wide variety of employment; and local employers should be drawn into closer dialogue. The jury is out.