From day one on the TEF panel, the key principle has been that every member brings lived experience, and nobody’s lived experience is more important than anybody else’s. Student and academic panel members have shown constant respect for one another’s expertise and knowledge – increasing everyone’s awareness of the scale and diversity of provision across our sector.
Using our collective expertise
As well as what we have learned from one another, we have learned even more from the universities and colleges we have been assessing. We got to know all of the providers in depth through their submissions and data, listening to their own accounts of their contexts, challenges, successes, hopes, dreams and wicked unsolved problems.
There has been a lot of talk about the holistic approach integral to TEF 2023, and the change from an ‘initial hypothesis’ driven by metrics in previous TEFs. We are happy to confirm that the panel has indeed worked in a genuinely holistic and highly iterative way – our mission has been to seek excellence, and we have looked pretty hard in all the available places. Of course, panel members have preferences. Some approach the indicators with very great enthusiasm (and expertise); others greatly prefer text; some are discernibly cheerier if there’s a video involved. Put it all together, and you have a rigorous – and yes, holistic – discussion, based on an understanding of what excellence can look like in different contexts, and assessing it fairly against a common framework. Triangulating evidence, experience and expectations has been hard work, but it has been worthwhile, collegial, inclusive and enlightening.
What we learned about the sector
We confirmed our expectation that excellence is out there in providers of all types, specialist or generalist, large or small, further education or higher education, and located all around the country. Universities and colleges approached writing their submissions in a myriad of different ways – depending on philosophy, resource, engagement and preferred style. This brings a welcome variety, but the key message for the panel is that substance wins over style every time. What shines off the pages is a genuine, confident sense of self from providers that know their students and have a vision for enhancement.
To take a detailed example, one of the student experience features (SE4) refers to support for staff professional development and excellent academic practice. The best submissions considered how to recognise excellent teaching through promotion, recognition, and reward structures, and demonstrated impact. Institutional targets are used to give clarity. Some providers gave examples of systematic innovation, such as digital skills training, through building communities of digital practice and online training resources.
Celebrations of innovative teaching and teachers, including dedicated conferences and student-led award schemes are a feature. Ample use of professional fellowships to support good practice across the staff base are evident. However, it could be difficult to understand the scale and impact of these approaches. Only the best feature descriptions of SE4 brought all these different kinds of practice together to convince the panel that the approach across the provider was systematic in integrating outstanding development and academic practice, carried out at high relative scale.
There is a general theme of the best submissions using TEF as an opportunity to reflect on what works well and why; and to tell the panel about their tailoring of provision to their own students, staff, context and priorities. These reflective submissions are based on an understanding of the need to demonstrate impact, and to build evaluation in from the start. Outstanding provision is not perfect provision though – the panel considered it positive for universities and colleges to recognise where they had issues; better still to have plans and ideas for how to fix them; and best of all to have set those plans in motion in a way that was already showing some positive change.
The addition of educational gain
Educational gain is new to TEF, but there was an exciting level of engagement with the concept, and a range of providers already have well-worked-through frameworks, though rather fewer are already evaluating.
One outstanding example from a provider involved a joint focus group. This group, composed of students from all disciplines, established the academic, personal, work-related, and other developments and skills that are valued by students. It also highlighted what they feel they gain and what they believe they should gain from their educational experience. After two successful pilots, a personal development programme – working through three core dimensions of academic, professional, and personal development and comprising 15 elements – was co-created by students and staff. This ensured a coherent and streamlined skills development journey for all students, from pre-arrival through to graduation. The impact was evidenced as thousands of students engaged with the programme and completed tens of thousands of badge activities.
The value of student submissions
We were delighted that student submissions were made for 204 of the 228 providers assessed. The submissions were of all shapes and sizes, with some mainly including survey data, many text-based, and others all-singing and all-dancing (quite literally). They provided authentic and enlightening insights into student experience in our sector. Overall, we were impressed by the degree of independence between the student and provider submissions. We felt we could give real weight to student submissions where we could tell they were representative of the views and experiences of the provider’s student body as a whole.
A memorable example from a student submission was that of a Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme, which provides incoming first year students with an academic mentor from students in above years. This scheme was developed collaboratively between the provider and its students’ union and has received positive endorsement from leading sector representative groups. What really stood out was its impact; 80 per cent of students reporting that the scheme made their university transition more enjoyable, and 97 per cent of PAL leaders reporting that the role enhanced their own learning.
We very much hope student submissions will be retained for future TEF.
Sharing our findings with the sector
It has been a pleasure to be able to ‘give something back’ to providers and students, who have worked very intensively on their submissions, through ratings both at overall provider and at aspect levels. Compared with previous TEF processes, a greater sense of nuance and best fit flowed from recognising that providers really are often at different stages of their journeys in student experience as opposed to student outcomes. The more detailed panel statements are also more human documents, and while they are not intended for publication, we believe they will support providers as they plan and make changes in the inter-TEF period.
We end this blog with the most important theme – student voice.
In the sector we talk a great game on student partnership and cocreation. This was it in action. It is vital to have student involvement both at the submission and the assessment stage, so that the TEF process, as well as outcomes, reflect what matters most to students.