HEFCE introduced the voluntary scheme in 2016 to recognise quality in teaching at the undergraduate level. Last month the first round of Gold, Silver and Bronze ratings were awarded to some surprise from the sector as many of the country’s highly ranked institutions missed out on top tier results.
But, a survey of 3,300 international students by Hobsons reveals confusion among international students about the controversial scheme.
Of the students who claimed to know about the scheme, a quarter think a Bronze award means teaching quality is ‘unsatisfactory’ and half thought results were based on random inspections of lectures and classes from the Department of Education.
“If we find it difficult to understand what TEF is telling us here in the UK how do we expect people overseas to understand it?”
Seventy three percent did correctly identify that TEF ratings are based on statistics such as dropout rates, student satisfaction survey results and graduate employment rates, however.
The framework uses an institution’s history as a benchmark for the ratings but 60% of students who had heard of it and 35% of those who hadn’t said they thought all universities were measured against the same criterion.
“I’m not surprised by these results but I’m a bit disappointed that more international students aren’t familiar with the TEF,” commented Paul Raybould director of marketing & market intelligence at Hobsons EMEA.
“For UK institutions it’s a huge opportunity because teaching quality is by far the biggest factor students are looking for when choosing a university. If they have a clear way to see the teaching quality in the UK it could put them above universities in the US.”
Stakeholders agree the results of the survey aren’t surprising. “If we find it difficult to understand what TEF is telling us here in the UK how do we expect people overseas to understand it?” commented one pro-vice chancellor of global engagement, who added that the confusion could do harm to the sector’s reputation.
“If famous universities have a rating which [international students] believe means third rate it’s not unreasonable for them to assume that places they haven’t heard of can’t be up to much.”
Dominic Scott, CEO of UKCISA, said, “Obviously it is a concern if international students are unaware of, misunderstand or are confused by TEF – but perhaps not surprising. The whole exercise is at a very early – and some would say ‘pilot’ – stage and most commentators would say that the results should only be used alongside many other factors.”
He cautioned that, “As we start to think not about this year but applicants for 2018 we will certainly want to ensure that visa perceptions, Brexit and confusion over TEF don’t produce a triple whammy.”
Despite the lack of awareness about the scheme, the survey also shows that students are influenced by TEF results. Both students who have heard and not heard of the TEF said they would be more likely to choose a university with a Gold TEF award above one that is highly ranked in global league tables.
However, for lower rated institutions, students said they would choose universities higher placed in the rankings over ones with Silver or Bronze awards.
Sonal Minocha, pro-vice chancellor for global engagement at Bournemouth University believes the government needs to do more to improve the communications strategy around the framework, saying Minster for Universities and Science Jo Johnson’s speech this week “clearly targeted the Bronze players”.
Results show students are more likely to choose a university with a Gold TEF award above one that is highly ranked in global league tables
“The international press and media will obviously pick that up as Bronze equaling mediocre,” she said.
Commenting on the TEF in an address to the higher education sector earlier this week, Johnson, said: “For too long, institutional incentives have led universities to prioritise research performance over teaching and learning outcomes.
“The TEF puts in place new reputational and financial incentives to correct this imbalance.”
Johnson also confirmed the next stages of the framework would incorporate graduate outcomes, subject-level ratings and teaching and contact hours.
Raybould at Hobsons, cautioned however, that as the ratings evolve, it could create more confusion for students. “It’s essential for students to understand what they reflect at that moment in time.”
And Minocha added that universities will also play a role in informing international students about the scheme.
“As it will be on every UCAS course page we do have to educate potential students as to its value, its parameters and how students can use it in their decision making,” she said.
“At BU we will do this through highlighting the positives that were drawn out in the findings in our marketing messages while also ensuring TEF is explained on the website alongside the other ranking groups such as the Sunday Times, Times Higher, QS, etc.”