The familiar hierarchy of UK higher education looks very different in light of the teaching excellence framework (TEF) results.
The London School of Economics, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, finds its educational standards labelled “bronze”, while the likes of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have unfamiliar company in the “gold” category, with smaller, campus-based institutions and post-92s performing well.
Concerns about the TEF’s methodology will continue. The key question, however, is how much difference this will make in practice. Will students vote with their feet and flock to gold institutions, whatever their research reputation?
Here, the evidence is conflicting. The government’s own research, conducted during the development of the TEF, found that many students doubted whether TEF data would have influenced their choice of institution.
Most university applicants choose their university according to its strength in their preferred discipline and, given the variation in institutions’ performance across subjects, the value of an overall rating is limited.
Many students will recognise that higher education is to some extent a prestige good, and a degree from the LSE is still likely to be a passport to a decent job.
However, the simplicity of the TEF ratings will make them attractive to some students, and the stamp of government approval gives significant weight to the exercise.
In addition, if domestic league tables incorporate TEF data into their methodologies, the exercise’s impact will be multiplied.
This is likely to be particularly influential on international students – a key factor for universities, given the lucrative tuition fees that overseas learners pay. A survey of 27,955 prospective international recruits, conducted by student recruitment company Hobsons earlier this year, found that a gold TEF rating would be perceived to be the best indicator of the quality of a university, after satisfaction scores.
Of course, the TEF is not just a beauty contest, or a recruitment exercise: the government’s aim is drive up what it regards as “patchy” teaching standards.
Whether the TEF will achieve this, or whether institutions are more likely to try to game the metrics, remains to be seen.
It seems likely that the TEF will have more of an impact on student choice when it is linked directly to the tuition fees that an institution can charge, and is conducted on a subject level, which is still some years away.
Equally, the review of the TEF’s methodology and ratings system that has been announced by the government means that the exercise could still change significantly.
So, while the TEF means that it is all change in UK higher education, it is also still all to play for.