The proposed TEF: Destinations as a measure of teaching quality?


By Harriet Richmond, Senior Lecturer Work-Based Learning, Northampton Business School, University of Northampton


The week before last saw the publication of the Government’s White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. Three key metrics will underpin the assessment of teaching quality: student satisfaction scores (National Student Survey), graduate outcome data (Destination of Leavers from Higher Education or DLHE), and continuation rates. There are some fundamental questions about whether these metrics are an appropriate way of assessing teaching quality. To illustrate, let’s consider the case of graduate destinations.

Cashian, Clarke & Richardson (2015) in a paper for the Chartered Association of Business Schools identify three key factors which influence student success in the graduate labour market. In thinking about these factors, I ask the question: What is the relationship between these and teaching quality?

The first is that a student’s degree class remains the single most important factor in making a successful transition into a graduate job. Since higher education fees were raised to a maximum of £9000 a year in 2012, students increasingly associate financial investment with a return in the form of improved employability prospects (Bates and Kaye, 2014). This has been emphasised by both the National Union of Students and the Confederation of British Industry in ‘Your university course matters and so does the degree result you emerge with at the end’. However, one of the unintended outcomes of this emphasis is that students tend not to engage in long-term planning, which means they may not value activities that help to widen their experiences and develop new skills (Greenbank, 2014). From personal experience, I know it can be an uphill battle convincing students to embark on a paid placement year. Many want to finish their studies as soon as possible, anxious about being left behind in the graduate labour market, even though there is evidence to suggest that students who have undertaken sandwich work placements have a greater chance of success in the graduate labour market.  Undergraduate perceptions of the need to attain a ‘good degree’ seem to be at odds with the need to engage in activities that will help them to develop skills and experiences that employers say they value.

If the class of degree and work placements are so pivotal to students’ success in the graduate labour market, what does this have to do with teaching quality? On the one hand it could be argued that teaching quality does have the potential to contribute to the achievement of a good degree result. But this too is problematic because it frames students as passive recipients; universities do things to students in order to make them more employable. Learning is a joint enterprise which requires commitment from both lecturer and student. Furthermore, if it is the case that students gaining A* grades at A level are more likely to achieve a good degree classification (Vidal Rodeiro and Zanini, 2015), then systemic inequality of employment outcomes may not be – ultimately - within the control of universities. This aspect reflects the final factor which predicts graduate success in the labour market; there are a range of social and biographical factors which may impact on a student’s initial success in the graduate labour market. The graduate destinations metric appears to present a common-sense measure of teaching quality where the UK is framed as a meritocracy in which there are no demographic, regional, social, economic or biographical barriers to graduate employment.

Finally, can we be confident that the destinations metric is fit for purpose in the long term? There is a rise in the UK in forms of ‘precarious labour’ typified by short-term, self-employed and freelance working (Lorey, 2015). Will the DLHE’s snapshot in time be an accurate measure of whether students are in ‘graduate’ jobs? The creative and cultural (C&C) industries have been adapting to precarious working patterns for some time (Neilson and Coté, 2014). As one former colleague working with C&C students put it: “We’re getting hammered by the DLHE because our students all work freelance. If they are between jobs on the day they fill in the form or answer the phone, they go down as unemployed and it reflects badly on us but that’s not fair is it?” Perhaps an approach that recognises quality of provision, rather than outcomes, might provide a more balanced assessment of teaching quality.


Bates, E. and Kaye, L. (2014) ‘“I’d be expecting caviar in lectures”: The impact of the new fee regime on undergraduate students’ expectations of Higher Education’, Higher Education, 67(5), pp. 655–673. doi: 10.1007/s10734-013-9671-3.

Greenbank, P. (2014) ‘Career decision-making: “I don”t think twice, but it“ll be all right”’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 19(2), pp. 177–193. doi: 10.1080/13596748.2014.897507.

Lorey, I. (2015) State of insecurity: Government of the precarious. London: Verso.

Neilson, B. and Coté, M. (2014) ‘Introduction: Are we all cultural workers now?’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 7(1), pp. 2–11. doi: 10.1080/17530350.2013.864989.

Vidal-Rodeiro, C. and Zanini, N. (2015) ‘The role of the A* grade at A level as a predictor of university performance in the United Kingdom’, Oxford Review of Education, 41(5), pp. 647–670. doi: 10.1080/03054985.2015.1090967.