An exploration of the impact and implications of the Teaching Excellence Framework

Between February and November 2018, Professor O’Leary, Dr Cui and Dr French from C-SPACE carried out an independent study, commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU), aimed at plugging the gap in knowledge and research relating to the impact and implications of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on those working in HE.



The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2016 marked a key turning point for Higher Education (HE) in the UK. Never before has the ‘quality’ of HE teaching been subjected to such external scrutiny, culminating in high stakes assessment outcomes for institutions through the TEF’s medal categories of gold, silver and bronze. HE providers are still very much coming to terms with what the TEF means for them and how best to organise their institutional responses. Thus the TEF and the whole debate around the quality of teaching in HE is not only live and topical but equally one that continues to raise more questions than answers across the sector.

The project was commissioned in anticipation of UCU’s contribution to the Independent Review of the TEF in 2019. UCU recognised the need for staff perspectives to be made more visible in the Review, which has not been the case in the development and implementation of the TEF to date, as they have largely been excluded from the process. Thus one of the unique contributions of this project to debates around teaching excellence and the TEF in particular is the inclusion of the voices and experiences of the HE workforce who are most directly affected by this policy reform.

Aims of research

The study was specifically aimed at investigating UCU members’ awareness, involvement and perception of the TEF and its impact on their professional lives.

It aimed to explore and explain participants’ situated experiences of the TEF by capturing contextualised examples from their workplaces as well as exploring their wider perceptions of how the TEF was impacting on policy and practice at an institutional, faculty, programme and individual level.

The study also intended to address what the project team perceived as a sectoral need to inject critically informed perspectives on work relating to the quality of teaching and ongoing discussions around notions of teaching excellence in HE.

An additional line of inquiry that the study sought to explore and capture evidence of were those practices/approaches to understanding, recognising and promoting teaching quality that were either absent from the current TEF assessment framework or fell under the radar of official TEF submissions.

The key research questions underpinning this study were:

  • What are the experiences and perceptions of UCU members of the TEF and its impact on their work in HE? 
  • To what extent do the experiences and perceptions of UCU members differ according to their workplace contexts, their contractual roles, modes and terms of employment?
  • What alternative approaches and methodologies to the current reliance on metrics are there for understanding, recognising and promoting teaching quality based on the experience and research of those working in HE?

Method of research

There were four distinct methods and phases of data collection used during the course of the project. These comprised:

1) A literature review on teaching excellence and cognate publications;

2) an online survey;

3) a series of national strategic seminars and; 

4) interviews with representatives of HE sector stakeholders.

A combination of these different methods provided the study with the most effective means of addressing the research questions while maintaining consistency and validity throughout the project: while quantitative methods were used to facilitate the analysis of a large sample size able to capture the overarching trends across the membership and draw out generalisable conclusions, other methods sought to explore the situated perceptions and experiences of participants of the TEF in order to create a research narrative and so required a qualitative approach.

This research involved over 6000 staff members from universities, specialist institutions and College HE providers in England, Scotland, Wales and Norther Ireland. This is a distinctive strength of this study as to date no other study has harnessed the views and experiences of such a large representation of staff working in HE provision about the TEF. In addition, the views of the TEF assessment panel and the National Union of Students were represented by Sir. Chris Husbands and Hannah Sketchley.