The results of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) have now been announced. Universities across the UK have been ranked gold, silver or bronze based on the quality of their teaching, learning and student experience.
The results reveal that 59 higher education providers were rated gold, 116 silver and 56 bronze. Gold rated universities include Cambridge, Coventry, Huddersfield, Lancaster, Loughborough and Oxford.
Among the Russell Group universities – traditionally seen to be the best in the country – eight out of 21 institutions were awarded the gold rating, while 10 got silver. The world-renowned London School of Economics was awarded the lowest bronze rating, as was Liverpool, Southampton, Goldsmiths and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
All of these universities were outperformed in the TEF by newer universities such as Liverpool Hope and Lincoln, along with small specialist institutions including The Royal Veterinary College and Royal Northern College of Music – which are among those awarded the gold standard.
While these new rankings present something of a mixed picture in comparison to traditional league tables, it’s hoped they will help students make informed choices about which degree course might be right for them. But many universities awarded with the lowest bronze level have criticised the system as unfair and unreliable.
Here’s how you can make sense of the new rankings.
What is the TEF?
Since late 2015, the UK government has been developing a completely new scheme to recognise excellent teaching and learning, and raise its importance within UK universities.
The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, said:
The Teaching Excellence Framework is refocusing the sector’s attention on teaching – putting in place incentives that will raise standards across the sector and giving teaching the same status as research.
Part of the thinking behind the TEF was also that the government wanted to provide more in depth data to help students – regarded by the government as “consumers” – choose which university or college to study at.
How is the TEF worked out?
The TEF assesses three key areas:
Teaching quality: teaching that stimulates and challenges students, and maximises their engagement with their studies.
Learning environment: the effectiveness of resources and activities – such as libraries, laboratories and work experience – which support learning and improve retention, progression and attainment.
Student outcomes: the extent to which all students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieve their educational and professional goals.
The Olympic-style ratings are worked out by an independent panel of academics, students and employer representatives – who collectively consider metrics measuring student satisfaction, drop outs and progression to employment.
To make the process fair for all universities, these metrics take into account differences in student characteristics, entry qualifications and subjects studied. The panels also consider written submissions made by each university.
Why is the TEF important?
The TEF results obviously have reputational consequences – a gold rating is a big marketing gift from the government for any university. The results will be widely shared and are expected to have an impact on student recruitment – especially in the important international student market.
The TEF is part of the government’s aim to improve the “product information” available to prospective students. This is why the TEF awards will appear on the Unistats and UCAS websites, to help prospective students make an informed choice about where to study.
The TEF results will also be used to inform undergraduate fee rises. All universities which have achieved a TEF award – either gold, silver or bronze – in this round will be able to increase their fees in line with inflation in 2018 to 2019.
The government intends that in future years, TEF results will lead to variable fee increase – where universities awarded gold will be able to increase their fees by more than those who receive bronze.
Why is it controversial?
Before the TEF, most rankings assessed universities on their research – based on the grants they’ve received and the quality of their publications. These factors benefit the oldest universities, guaranteeing them a place at the top of the table. But research performance isn’t included in the TEF, creating a completely new hierarchy.
This explains why the TEF results don’t match up to people’s preconceived perceptions or prejudices about the higher education sector, and why many of the so-called “top unis” have failed to make the highest grade in the TEF.
Then there is the criticism that the TEF is measuring the immeasurable – in that the whole teaching and student experience of a university can’t be reduced down to a three-medal rating.
For example, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton, which received a bronze rating, has said the TEF is “devoid of credibility” and its results are “meaningless”.
It must also be remembered that these TEF results are institution wide – not broken down by subject areas. This means a university receives one TEF rating for the whole institution. That said, the government plans to introduce a subject level TEF in future years, to take into account that universities often vary internally between different departments. And looking to the future, the TEF will continue to evolve as the government adds additional dimensions and new metrics.