Buzzwords ‘helped universities get gold in the TEF’

Strong performers in the teaching excellence framework may have benefited from slick brand-building, Hepi report suggests

October 19, 2017
gold silver bronze TEF rating

Missed out on gold in the teaching excellence framework? Perhaps it was because your metrics fell short or, maybe, you chose the wrong buzzword.

This is the theory put forward in an analysis of UK universities’ 15-page TEF narrative statements, which found that institutions that identified a key quality about their themselves and doggedly repeated that memorable word or phrase throughout their statement tended to do well with assessors.

Focusing on 12 of the 33 institutions that had their TEF awards upgraded during the assessment process compared with what their core metrics indicated, a Higher Education Policy Institute report published on 19 October pinpoints some of the “buzzwords” that defined these successful submissions.

“Outstanding” seemed to be the watchword for the University of Birmingham, which used it 33 times in its submission, observes the Hepi report, Going for Gold: Lessons from the TEF Provider Submission.

Edge Hill University, which, like Birmingham, was upgraded to “gold” in the TEF when its raw metrics would have earned it a silver, also profited from deploying a memorable buzzword, adds the report. In Edge Hill’s case, it used the word “personal” (and its derivatives) 27 times, which, the report explains, stresses how the university was “unmistakably student-centred and concerned about its impact on individuals”.

Bournemouth University, which was upgraded to a silver, used the word “fusion” 16 times in its narrative, while Leeds Beckett University, which also scored silver, used the words “north” or “northern” 20 times to emphasise its powerful connection to the local community, the report explains.

The University of the Arts London (silver) used the word “creative” 57 times in its account and “leaves us in no doubt that it is a creative institution”, the report adds. In comparison, University College London (also silver) referred to its “connected curriculum” linking research and teaching a mere 18 times.

Diana Beech, Hepi’s director of policy and advocacy and the report’s author, said that her “snapshot” of the TEF statements showed that universities should pay close attention to the style of their submission and “hammer home their unique selling point”.

“Some of the buzzwords, such as UCL’s ‘connected curriculum’, might sound a bit corporate, but it differentiates it from other institutions, so the university was right to mention it several times,” Dr Beech told Times Higher Education.

Dr Beech praised Edge Hill’s submission as particularly impressive, saying that its warm and personal tone helped to show that it cared about its students and staff and valued the idea of an academic community.

“It only referred to itself in the third person nine times – everywhere else it spoke about ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’, which showed they cared, as well as certain confidence,” she said.

“In contrast, Bournemouth referred to themselves as ‘BU’ more than 200 times, which is far more impersonal, although their statement was pretty effective overall.”

Another rhetorical technique that appeared to prove effective was the strategic use of humility, which allowed institutions to face up to the shortcomings in their data, said Dr Beech.

For example, UCL acknowledges that its students are “‘dissatisfied’ they are assessed and receive feedback”, while Imperial College London achieved gold after admitting that it had an action plan to improve areas in which “it is not always as effective as it could be”, the report says.

“Using humility is a great starting point from which to explain how you are taking steps to improve the student experience,” Dr Beech told THE.

For those institutions thinking about reapplying next year to the TEF, recently renamed the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework, these stylistic points “might seem minor, but they leave an impression”, Dr Beech advised.

“It’s easy to use corporate jargon, but universities need to remember that the TEF panel are making a judgement on written language, so you need to use techniques that allow people to relate to you.”

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Reader's comments (1)

I worked at Edge Hill 1998-2000. The 'warm and personal tone' was my experience and definitely one of it's defining qualities, even back then.

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