Education & Family

University teaching grading system explained

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As universities are officially graded for the quality of their teaching for the first time, we take a look at the Teaching Excellence Framework used to do this.

Why was the new grading system introduced?

Although the main business of universities is teaching, institutions tend to build their reputations on the quality of their research.

And, until recently, there has been very little assessment of teaching quality at universities.

The Teaching Excellence Framework was put into place to address this.

With almost all undergraduate fees now raised to the maximum of £9,000 per year, ministers were concerned this flat rate was masking large differences in courses.

So, the government introduced the TEF to provide students with better information about the quality of degree programmes on offer.

How does it work?

Each institution is awarded either a gold, silver, bronze or provisional TEF award.

The grading is mainly based on three sets of information:

  • students' views of teaching
  • assessment and academic support from the National Student Survey
  • drop-out rates and rates of employment

It is notable that none of these metrics directly measures the quality of teaching, although the NSS does give an insight into students' perceptions of teaching.

Each institution's performance on these measures is then benchmarked against the demographic characteristics of its students.

It is then flagged if the performance is statistically better or statistically worse than the benchmark.

Then, assessors feed in information from each university's own assessment of its teaching standards to arrive at the grade.

How are the awards used?

Initially, the awards were to be used to assess whether a university would be allowed to raise its tuition fees beyond the maximum £9,000.

But this is now being phased in over a number of years, and the framework is in an early guise.

In the first year of the TEF, all providers that passed a baseline quality standard received a "meets expectation" award.

But as this was set at the basic standard that universities had to meet to be accredited, all providers reached it last year.

This allowed them to raise their fees in line with inflation - an extra £250 for students starting courses in 2017.

In this the second year - for those students starting courses in autumn 2018 - judgements have been made against a range of measurements and information.

But again all those that have received the "meets expectation" award will be able to raise their fees in line with inflation.

So, the promise that the TEF will for the first time link funding of teaching to quality is some way off being realised.

How useful is the award?

According to the Centre for Global Higher Education, the TEF will provide students with better information about the quality of degree programmes than is currently on offer in commercial rankings.

But there is no direct assessment of the quality of teaching.

Rather, it is related to students' perceptions of teaching and courses.

Also, currently, the awards assess the institution only as a whole, rather than for each particular courses.

The Higher Education Policy Institute said: "In this early guise, the TEF is far from a perfect assessment of teaching and learning.

"While it tells us a lot of useful things, none of them accurately reflects precisely what goes on in lecture halls."

It urges university applicants to use the results in their decision-making, but to do so with caution, as the ratings are for whole universities rather than individual courses.

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