As part of the celebrations for Academic Book Week, the Booksellers Association sponsored a seminar, called From REF to TEF, which considered the implications that the UK Teaching Excellence Framework [TEF] might have for the academic publishing and bookselling industries.  The seminar took place at the British Library on Wednesday 25th January.

The event was structured as a panel session.  Benedicte Page, of The Bookseller, was the chair and the four speakers were Brian Hipkin, a journalist and academic commentator, David Prescott, MD of Blackwell’s Bookshops, Richard Stagg, Director of the Pearson HE Product Group for the UK and Andrew Robinson, Director of HE at Cengage.

Brian Hipkin began by attempting to explain what publishers and booksellers should expect and prepare for and describing what TEF is (and what it is not).  He said that because of the way TEF is structured – it depends almost entirely on data that will be presented to parents to give their children a more informed choice of which university to choose – it will take 5 – 6 years for the stakeholders to be sure about exactly which data should be used.  At the moment, it is just looking at undergraduates, and just operating at an institutional level.  Eventually it will include postgraduates and operate at the subject level as well.  A main source of the statistics will be the National Student Survey (NSS), which rates universities on 6 main areas: teaching; assessment and feedback; the quality of academic support; retention; employment (of new graduates within six months of graduation) and employability.  Within the context of the last three of these, widening participation is a significant factor.

Institutions will be given TEF ratings according to the results.  The government intends to award 50 institutions with ‘gold’ status, 50 with ‘silver’ status, and the remaining 79 will be ‘bronze’.  The level awarded will depend on benchmarking: to get gold, none of the 6 metrics for the university concerned must be below the benchmark; for silver, they may be able to drop below the benchmark in one or two of the metrics; if they are classified as bronze, they will have fallen below the benchmarks in more than two areas.  The level of award will have monetary significance: gold and silver universities will receive a 100% inflationary increment to their funding from the government, bronze universities only 50%.

The criteria concerning learning resources are as yet not specific, but will clearly be watched closely by publishers and booksellers.  Brian Hipkin says that the publisher’s best friend “may no longer be members of Faculty, but the Library, the CEO”, etc.  As universities are not very joined-up places, he recommends that publishers and booksellers make the initial approach, and particularly try to establish that there is correlation between the provision of learning materials and academic achievement.

David Prescott said that, approaching TEF from a purely commercial point of view, the move towards concentration on teaching had to be positive.  Over the past ten years, the biggest recorded successes have been where university-funded textbook schemes had been established.  These were popular with students, because they help costs and contribute to widening participation; can have a transformative effect on NSS scores; and can help booksellers (and therefore publishers) to prosper.

British Library TEF seminar panel
L to R, Brian Hipkin, Andrew Robinson, Benedicte Page, Richard Stagg, David Prescott

David said that his concerns were that the TEF does not talk explicitly about books and textbooks, but only about learning resources; and that the government has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to take responsibility and HEFCE has established a panel of academics and students and widening participation experts, but not agreed to include any publishers or booksellers because of their commercial bias.  This is unfortunate, because booksellers are at the coal face and in a position to understand a great deal about what does or does not contribute to student achievement – e.g., via their knowledge of uptake of coursepack provision.  He said it was his belief that an agreed proportion of tuition fees should be ring-fenced for learning materials.

Richard Stagg said that in his view TEF presents more of an opportunity than a challenge: this despite the implications it raises about costs and the inevitable shifts of business model as learning resources get closer to the heart of teaching.  From research carried out by Pearson, the new learner Return on Investment (ROI) philosophy is “I’ve attended this lecture and I haven’t got my £40 or £50 of value from it”, rather than “Is this interesting?”  (This view was actually expressed by a student at University College London (UCL).)  Today’s students are much less likely to engage with the optional and peripheral.  At the same time, Faculty are under pressure to deliver a richer learning experience, usually at lower cost.

Textbook learning provides less and less of a successful answer to these kinds of issues.  Textbooks are necessarily silent on how they are used, and especially on how much the learner has understood.  At the heart of the new approach is the notion that appropriate resources must do a lot more both to promote excellent teaching and to evidence it.  Incentivised reading is important: positive reasons are required for students to come to a class prepared.  The challenge for the next generation of publishing is to invest in new products, platforms and capabilities, such as analytics and create new content and tools that demonstrate measurable learning gain and support teachers and the institution while establishing new partnerships and sustainable business models.

Andrew Robinson said that not much has happened in UK Higher Education since the post-1992 universities were given their charters, except for the change in tuition fees.  TEF will change this: it raises the stakes for universities and means that reputation now has a greater part to play in their success than financial gain.

The UK National Union of Students (NUS) is still trying to boycott the NSS, because it feels that the latter has been played (or ‘pimped’) by the institutions themselves.  Andrew said that a good move for publishers and booksellers would be to conjoin some of the data they could supply with that collected by the institutions themselves.  “The great thing about technology is that it gives greater transparency about how resources are being used.” For example, if academics understand how students are using interactive learning materials, tutorials can then be developed which focus on areas the students didn’t understand, rather than providing them with a ‘vanilla’ blanket tutorial which goes over stuff they know about already.  This approach would also contribute to the employability factor: it is vital for students to exit university with the right skills.

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