Stripping universities of a marker of elite status hits their reputation and causes them to lose students, but the benefits of conferring it in the first place are negligible, evidence suggests.
The research on Germany’s Excellence Initiative, which has been used to distribute billions of euros in public funding since 2006, has implications for all countries with official university ratings: particularly England, where ministers are pushing for the planned teaching excellence framework to grade universities as gold, silver or bronze.
In the state of Baden-Württemberg, losing official excellence status was correlated with subsequent recruitment of 7 per cent less first-year students than would otherwise have been expected, according to co-author Berthold Wigger, chair of public finance and public management at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, which lost excellence status in 2012.
For the universities that lost out in 2012, “it was perceived as reputational damage”, he explained. “There were front-page headlines in the local press.”
However, Professor Wigger’s research found that universities that won elite status for the first time enjoyed no bump in their student numbers.
The possibility that such schemes have a much greater ability to harm than boost university reputations raises the question as to whether institutions should be more heavily protected against losing their status.
“The central policy implication of the paper is that...the hurdle to get the title should not be as tough as the one you should apply when you want to take away a title,” he said.
The Excellence Initiative is about building research strength rather than teaching. But German students appear to have used it as a proxy measure for the quality of their lecturers, Professor Wigger said.
Meanwhile, England’s TEF will explicitly be about teaching quality, and based on a number of controversial metrics including student satisfaction and graduate employment. The government hopes to link the scores to future tuition fee rises, although this idea was rejected by the House of Lords last week.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that although the research looks at Germany, “given that we have a more hierarchical higher education system and are introducing a new ratings system in the TEF, the lessons may be even more relevant to the UK”. Similar research should be carried out in England if universities fall down in the TEF ranking, he added.
He said that the findings would “add to the temptation to push up lots of institutions to the silver and gold categories in each TEF round and to push down as few as possible”.
But, if the TEF was changed so that it became easier to go up than down, “there would still need to be some sort of route for an institution to fall down the pecking order eventually. Otherwise, the whole TEF exercise would be fairly meaningless,” he added.
It is not yet clear how much impact on student perception the TEF will have compared with other measures. According to Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, “the impact of reputational loss may be stronger than reputational gain but it is also not clear what students will focus on. They may continue to focus on the existing [higher education] league tables that we have had for a long time in this country.”
The findings from Germany, co-authored by Professor Wigger's colleagues Kerstin Bruckmeier and Georg-Benedikt Fischer, and published in the International Journal of Economics and Finance, require replication and are drawn from a small sample size. A spokesman for the University of Freiburg, which also lost its excellence status in 2012, pointed out that several other universities in Baden-Württemberg also suffered a drop in first-year students after the release of the results.
“We took great advantage of the elite status from the first round [in 2006] for marketing and reputation management, particularly also internationally,” he said. “The loss of the status in the third round [in 2012] was no longer particularly relevant,” he said, adding that the university had been successful in other parts of the Excellence Initiative.