The 2017 Academic Book Trade (ABT) Conference focused entirely on the UK Teaching Excellence Framework (the ‘TEF’) and was entitled Leadership and Influence in a TEF-led World.

This year’s conference took place in Stratford on Avon on 18th and 19th May, and was attended by more than 100 delegates from academic publishing houses and bookselling companies.

The opening address took the form of a ‘conversation piece’ between Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, and Richard Fisher, the conference chairman, and a former Managing Director of Cambridge Academic.

Sir David began by saying that, despite the concerns of some of his colleagues, the British Higher Education system is ‘light touch’ when it comes to government oversight – which may be why it’s so successful. By introducing the 2017 Higher Education Bill, the UK government has indicated that it’s keen to open up the HE market to new entrants, as well as bringing more logic to the structure of HE and introducing some elements of detail – around the TEF – of what constitutes excellence in teaching. He added that the UK government has passed 30 bills in 30 years on education, and some of them have been ‘questionable’, but this one was undoubtedly needed.

Sir David Bell (L) and Richard Fisher
Sir David Bell (L) and Richard Fisher

In introducing the TEF, in Sir David’s view, the government is ‘pushing at an open door’. To say that universities are not interested in teaching is a caricature, but they have been slow to respond to this perception. People in the sector felt that all the incentives pointed towards research; there was a need to rebalance considerations around teaching. However, it is curious that the TEF does not impose a direct assessment of teaching – unlike the REF, which certainly imposes a direct assessment of research. Instead, the TEF as it stands relies on a number of proxy indicators to make up the judgment.

The first results from the first round of TEF submissions will be published on 15th June, after the UK general election. There will be some institutions that find themselves much higher in the TEF league tables than in other kinds of league table. The question is, will this matter to students?

Asked by Richard Fisher about the six metrics that inform the TEF, Sir David said there would be inevitable tensions between teaching and research. The metrics are not infallible – ‘as a lecturer you can be hugely interested in what you do, but it can be quite remote from these metrics’.

Richard asked Sir David what he thought of future plans to introduce a form of the TEF for taught graduates. He said that this was ‘interesting territory’. “The government has made an important concession in delaying until 20 / 21 any possibility that differentiated tuition fees could be linked to TEF outcomes. Bearing this in mind, at what point might we move to postgraduate teaching? Will we ever move to subject-level TEF?” He thinks that if the TEF does move to subject level, a ‘bureaucratic monster’ might emerge. He said that he could imagine that after the election a new HE minister might not want another argument ‘down the line’ with the HE community – does the government really have an appetite to make the TEF subject-focused?

Richard pointed out that a number of institutions, including the University of Edinburgh and the Open University, have declined to take part in the TEF. Sir David said that this raised the interesting question of what effect the TEF might have on an institution’s reputation. Some might be afraid of a ‘what if’ scenario that they wouldn’t be able to control; others might feel their reputation is so strong that they ‘will be able to ride this one out’. Similarly, those who rocket to the top of the TEF but aren’t high in other league tables may not really gain much benefit. Richard said that perhaps what would result would be a ‘prosperous centre’, rather than a ‘squeezed middle’. Sir David said that league tables are an important driver in higher education, but they’re not the only driver.

Turning to the issue of resource provision, Sir David said that he wasn’t sure whether, in its earliest years, the TEF would have an impact on resources. Following National Student Survey (NSS) results, many institutions are making a big investment in facilities – study space, etc. Different universities are adopting a wide range of approaches. Students can sometimes be quite conservative: they want specialist guidance from subject librarians. All of this was positive news for the conference delegates.

Turning to ‘Brexit’, Sir David said the key issue for universities would be the government’s future immigration policy. “Asking for the world to be as it was pre-June 23rd 2016 is extremely naïve”. The big question for everyone is what might a more sophisticated HE system look like? What would it take to manage such a system? “We might have to be prepared to make some important compromises.”

Richard asked Sir David what might happen to Further Education. Sir David said that every government for the past 30 years has said that it will give FE priority. The present government’s industrial skills strategy is more open to skills development, and FE more generally, than its predecessors, so there may be ‘a glimmer of hope’ for FE now, especially through the apprenticeship levy. FE often reacts quickly and well to local employment circumstances. Some policy continuity would help. The most buffeted of all sectors is not the schools system, but FE.

Sir David’s final message to academic publishers and booksellers was “Don’t beat yourselves up too much. You are a crucial part of HE. Most students will tell you that what concerns them more than university fees are day-to-day living expenses. Everything the academic publishing and bookselling industries can do to help students to deal with costs – how you package resources – goes down well. And remember to talk up what you do!”

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