What Should Replace the TEF?

22 06 2017

Today, the UK government will publish the results of the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), a massive bureaucratic exercise designed to measure teaching quality in UK universities. The creation of the TEF was prompted by the belief that teaching quality in the UK was falling behind the US and other countries. The main data point that supported the belief that university teaching in the UK isn’t quite as good as it is the US were the growing numbers of wealthy young Britons who were bypassing Oxbridge and going to the Ivy League. As the headmasters of schools such as Eton and Harrow reported to the media about a decade ago, they were doing so in the belief that the higher quality of education on offer there was worth the higher tuition fees and travel costs.

Rather ironically, the TEF has resulted in the re-direction of resources away from classroom activities towards systems designed to measure the quality of classroom activities!

I would like to suggest a much more efficient and administratively elegant policy the UK government could use to drive up teaching quality in universities: mandate that the children of faculty get free undergraduate tuition, but only at the university that employs their parents. This rule, which could be embodied in a statute of about two pages,  would incentivize the parents of under-18 children to monitor teaching quality and to speak up whenever they see teaching practices that are so bad that they fail what I call “The Parent Test.”  What that means is that if a professor hears about  something really awful going down in a colleague’s classroom, they will say “Hey, my kid is only 8 years old now, but in a decade that could be him in there!”  The academics at the university would then discipline the bad teachers in their midst through various informal measures that could be begin with offers of mentoring and advice and could then escalate all the way to denial of tenure and, in the case of bad professors who already have tenure, total social ostracism in the form of the Silent Treatment. This mode of punishing colleagues who are bad teachers is particularly effective, I’ve been told, when there is an active Faculty Club on campus where the professors hang out to exercise, eat, and socialize.


I’m privileged to work in a department with well-rounded academics who are good at both teaching and research and who actually care about students. However, I’ve got lots friends who are lecturers at other UK universities and I often hear horror stories about awful teachers. My awful, I don’t mean well-meaning incompetents who are ineffective. I mean truly malicious, cruel, and warped people. The rule I am proposing would improve UK university teaching by inducing such individuals to either leave academic work or perhaps to emigrate to developing countries where universities will hire anyone with a PhD and a pulse.


Now it is true this policy would cost the university sector a bit of money—there are tens of thousands of lecturers in the UK and if each of them has two children, the policy of free tuition at your parent’s university would end up costing tens of millions of pounds. That’s because each kid pays the university £9,000 per year for three years.  However, not all parents would end up sending their children to their own university, as we know from countries that have this system, many professors pay for their child to have the experience of living and studying at a university in a different city.

I know that the optics of giving the children of faculty free tuition might be awkward and I certainly recall from my own undergraduate days resentment when it was realized that “faculty brats” were being educated for free. I distinctly remember the reaction when the son of a professor foolishly mentioned at a party that he wasn’t paying to study at our university.  However, I think that this system would, on balance, work well in driving up teaching quality. Since not all faculty families would avail themselves of the offer of free tuition at the parent’s university, the system might costs less than the TEF. I would note that the estimates of the full economic costs of the TEF, which include lost faculty time, have never been released by the government.

The UK government should scrap the TEF, introduce the “Free Tuition at Your Parent’s University” rule for faculty children, and then wait for the rule to work its magic. In five or ten years, university teaching will improve dramatically. The rule I have proposed is in place in many of the US universities that have been poaching the graduates of Eton and Harrow and other top-performing British youngsters. The rule works well because it harnesses one of the most powerful forces at work in society—the desire of parents to protect their children from harm. In designing a policy to boost teaching quality, you want to a policy that works with human nature, not against it.

A UK university could adopt this rule independent of the government, as long they factored it into their long-term financial planning. Having this rule and then letting everyone know about it would serve as an important signal of teaching quality to prospective students – “Look. Our teaching is so good even the children of faculty attend this university!” Moreover, such a rule might help with faculty recruitment and retention.


Note that this post represents only my own views and reflects the views of neither my employer nor any of the scholarly organizations in which I am involved. I would be most happy to provide consultancy services to any UK organization that wishes to discuss the ideas in this blog post.




2 responses

26 06 2017

Funnily enough we are very positive about the TEF here at Aston 😉

1 07 2017

Prior to the release of the results, universities refused to comment on whether they thought that TEF methodology was sound. Once the results were published, they either denounced or praised the TEF.

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