Academic reputations: will the TEF be a game changer?

The exercise has the potential to shake up the current hierarchy and will be judged on whether it revises how firms and students view universities

June 23, 2016
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Reputation matters a great deal in higher education and both individuals and universities trade on it far more than they may care to admit.

But in academia, reputation has long been based on research performance: the prestige of a paper in a high-ranking journal, or position in a league table focused on research outcomes.

The teaching excellence framework is looking to break this monopoly. And the world will be watching: governments to see whether the TEF is a successful system that can be replicated; potential students to assess the best places to invest their time and tuition fees.

There are lots of concerns about the TEF. Some were acted on in the recent White Paper, others remain. Many rightly fear the consequences of higher education being metricised to within an inch of its life, and it’s undeniable that the measures themselves have individual and collective problems.

But there is also a widespread acceptance that the goal of the TEF – to recognise and reward institutions that really deliver for students – is the right one.

And as a means to tease out valuable points of difference and challenge the status quo, it has the potential to be a game changer if – and this is a crucial if – students and employers buy into it.

This week, we publish an exclusive analysis by the Times Higher Education data team who compile our World University Rankings, considering how the existing hierarchy may be challenged by the TEF. This is not an exact replica of the forthcoming exercise – we have used just one year of data, for example, and we do not have the element of peer review that will be included in the TEF proper.

But our analysis is based on the same three data sources that TEF will draw on in its opening stages. And we have produced both an absolute score (which is largely a reflection of the preconceived order) and a picture of performance against benchmarks.

It is this second analysis that reflects the differing reality of student intake and output, institution by institution.

This is where the government hopes that the TEF will bring real pressure to bear; for the first time, prospective students will see how institutions are performing on the measures that are assumed to matter to them the most.

Doubts will remain about whether such metrics can ever be proxies for teaching quality, but this may be beside the point, since satisfaction, retention and graduate outcomes are likely – all things being equal – to matter more to most students than research citation scores.

The TEF’s impact, however, depends on whether this new perspective of university performance translates into revised reputations in the minds of students and employers.

Will the latter, for example, view relative performance against benchmark as a valuable indicator of graduates with upward momentum? Or will they care only about absolute scores when they make decisions about who to recruit?

In his great interrogation of reputation in Othello, Shakespeare gave two interpretations: for Cassio it was the “immortal part of myself”, while Iago saw it as “an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving”.

The TEF will offer a new perspective on prestige, but in the end it will succeed in its stated goal only if it redefines academic reputation – the immortal currency of higher education.

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Print headline: Will the TEF shuffle the pack?

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