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A new league table that attempts to combine the results of the teaching and research excellence frameworks demonstrates that a “new elite” of universities is emerging in UK higher education.
That is the claim of two senior university leaders who created the ranking by putting together grade point averages from the 2014 REF, weighted for the number of staff submitted, and the average score across the six metrics underpinning the 2017 TEF.
The table – which for final scores gives equal weighting to both exercises – is still headed by the three UK research universities that tend to rank highest in international league tables (the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Imperial College London).
However, several smaller research-led institutions and some modern universities achieve relatively high placings in the list thanks to strong TEF scores. They include Loughborough University (5th), the universities of Surrey and Bath (6th and 7th respectively), Coventry University (18th) and Liverpool Hope University (37th).
TEF/REF ranking top 20
|Institution||TEF rank||REF rank||Overall Rank|
|University of Cambridge||13||1||1|
|University of Oxford||10||3||2|
|Imperial College London||28||2||3|
|University of St Andrews||8||6||4|
|University of Surrey||2||29||6|
|University of Bath||5||24||7|
|University of Birmingham||16||13||9|
|University of Dundee||4||32||11|
|University of Exeter||16||21||12|
|University of Leeds||14||26||13|
|Royal Holloway, University of London||31||14||16|
|University of Bristol||54||4||17|
|University of York||30||23||19|
|University of East Anglia||9||39||20|
Source: Lancaster University.
Writing online for Times Higher Education, Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, and Nicola Owen, the institution’s chief administrative officer, who worked on the ranking with the institution’s data analytics unit, say that combining TEF and REF metrics was worthwhile “despite well-known concerns about the robustness of TEF data”.
This was because “the data underlying REF and TEF are arguably much more robust than using brand references or historical reputations which are often used as sloppy shorthand for high quality”.
The pair add that the list produces “an interesting cadre of universities in the top 20” that are “medium-sized, campus-based, genuinely research-intensive universities” that in their opinion “are now clearly a key component of the emerging new elite”.
Addressing the “obvious suspicion” that they constructed the table to favour Lancaster – which is 8th – they point out that the institution “has little to gain, as we perform well in all three conventional UK league tables, being currently inside the top 10 of all of them”.
However, they accept that “some recognised world-class institutions have depressed positions because of well-rehearsed reasons around weaker TEF performance than the average”, highlighting the London School of Economics’ placing (64th).
This is likely to be one of the criticisms of combining the exercises as, apart from Imperial, London universities – which by and large performed badly in the TEF – all appear relatively low in the list.
The table is also still dominated by pre-92 universities. This could arguably be because of the method used to weight REF scores, which reflect the percentage of all academics – including teaching-only staff – submitted to the exercise. Such an approach could have amplified REF scores for research-intensives and depressed them for institutions with more of a teaching focus.
Professor Smith told Times Higher Education that combining the data did inevitably “lend bias” towards universities “whose missions are both teaching and research-focused”.
“We are transparent about this and it comes from our belief that having excellence in both research and teaching is an important factor in defining leading universities internationally,” he added.
Alan Palmer, head of policy and research at MillionPlus, which represents a group of post-92 universities, warned that rather than alter existing hierarchies, “blunt combinations” of the REF and TEF risked reinforcing them.
“The intent behind the TEF was to identify and recognise excellence in teaching and so raise its status. Dovetailing TEF results to REF league tables does little to achieve this and will do nothing to help students make informed decisions about the courses that are right for them," he said.