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UK: Teaching Excellence Framework results hold some surprises

The inaugural results of the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework were published today and were not without a few surprises. Some of the country’s most highly reputable – and highly ranked – universities missed out on top-tier ratings, as stakeholders wait to see what impact the results will have on international student recruitment.

TEF Gold institutionsTEF Gold institutions accounted for for 24.5% of global searches to UK. Photo: The University of Portsmouth

"UK universities must seriously consider the impact of the ratings on their international student recruitment"

The University of Liverpool, LSE and SOAS were among the higher education institutions awarded bronze in the first ever publication of the controversial framework.

The TEF was introduced by the government to measure teaching quality based on factors such as student satisfaction, student retention rates and graduate employment levels.

Predictably, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were both among the gold-rated cohort. Altogether, eight Russell Group universities earned the gold stamp.

“International students will find it useful to look at why universities were awarded gold”

However, a diverse cross-section of the sector was represented across the gold tier, which also included private institutions, former polytechnics and further education colleges.

Just under a third of the institutions that took part in the TEF earned the gold rating, which they will likely use to market themselves to international students.

“International students will also find it useful to look at the reasons why individual universities were awarded gold,” noted University of Portsmouth vice-chancellor Graham Galbraith.

Portsmouth’s “inclusive approach to supporting students” and employability services were highlighted as strengths by the TEF panel and contributed to its gold rating, Galbraith told The PIE News.

“These factors will all be of particular interest to international students when weighing up their options,” he said.

Meanwhile, a number of notable upsets saw multiple Russell Group and other reputable institutions listed in the bronze category.

Among them was the London School of Economics and Political Science, whose interim director Julia Black said: “We are proud of the school’s exceptional graduate record, as evidenced by our students’ high attainment and outstanding performance in highly-skilled job markets, which unfortunately are not captured by the TEF metrics.

“We recognise that we have work to do but we are confident that the education initiatives that we have underway will lead to improvements for our students,” she continued, pointing to changes to LSE’s assessment system and student services.

“However, the challenges around TEF and the limits to the measures it employs are also well documented,” she added.

A bronze rating does not denote a poor quality institution; rather, “what TEF has done is distinguish the very best from the good,” according to Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

But despite his assurances that all of the institutions receiving a TEF rating “have demonstrated world class quality above the threshold quality standards we expect”, a bronze rating will be concerning for many institutions.

Research by Hobsons indicates that prospective international students will be looking to the TEF to inform their decision on where to study.

More than a fifth (22%) of the participants in its International Student Survey said they thought a gold rating would be the best way to judge quality at a UK institution, and 80% of those considering the UK said they would choose excellent teaching quality over a high-ranking university.

“UK universities must seriously consider the impact of the ratings on their international student recruitment,” counselled Paul Raybould, Hobsons’ marketing director.

There is some controversy surrounding the credibility of the TEF, as alluded to by Black at LSE, partly because of the impact it may have on students’ perceptions of the quality of participating institutions.

“TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact,” warned Tim Bradshaw, acting director of the Russell Group, who said that applicants should be given clear guidance on how to interpret TEF results.

The University and College Union was more unequivocal in its condemnation of the framework, whose results general secretary Sally Hunt said “will have little credibility within higher education itself”.

“The fear is that students, beyond the UK in particular, will use these results as the basis for deciding which UK university to attend, which could damage some institutions,” she said.

“It was always designed to do something different to other league tables and rankings”

Others have questioned some of the unexpected placements in the gold, silver and bronze categories.

But Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman argued that the TEF “would have comprehensively failed if it had simply replicated existing hierarchies”.

“It was always designed to do something different to other league tables and rankings – namely, to show where there are pockets of excellence that have been ignored and to encourage improvements elsewhere,” he said.

“So the fact that some of the results seem surprising suggests it is working.”

However, he added that the TEF is “far from a perfect assessment of teaching and learning”, and advised that prospective students exercise caution when it comes to making decisions based on the results.

The TEF is in its trial phase and participation is voluntary. It will undergo a full review in 2019/20.

Post-review, there are plans to allow TEF-ranked English institutions to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation. Providers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can take part, but their results will not be tied to fees.

A number of universities, as well as the Russell Group, have welcomed the upcoming review.

Andrea Dlaska, deputy vice-chancellor, learning and innovation, at silver-rated Middlesex University, said: “the measures employed and the purpose of the exercise require further consideration”.

Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, echoed: “The challenge will be to develop the system to ensure the information is properly communicated and helpful to students in the decision making process.”

“It is important that the data used are appropriate, robust and take account of the considerable diversity within our university sector,” she added.

The full results of Teaching Excellence Framework are available here.

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