At least four Russell Group universities are to appeal their ranking in the UK’s teaching excellence framework (TEF).
The two institutions – ranked in the world’s top 200 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – were two of the three Russell Group universities to gain the lowest possible ranking in the TEF. The third – the London School of Economics – has yet to say what action it will take.
Durham University and the University of York, which were awarded silver, have said that they will also appeal their rankings, which were based on metrics related to graduate employment, student satisfaction and course completion rates, plus a 15-page narrative statement submitted by institutions.
It is believed that many of the appeals will focus on the use of the narrative statement, amid concerns that institutional claims around poor metric scores have been treated differently by the panel.
The appealing institutions’ unhappiness is likely to be heightened by Times Higher Education analysis that showed that many other Russell Group institutions’ TEF awards were better than the initial metrics indicated.
Sir Christopher Snowden, Southampton’s vice-chancellor, claimed that there was “no logic” in the institution’s result, arguing that the TEF’s benchmarking process was “fundamentally flawed”.
However, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which administered the TEF, has said that providers will be able to appeal only on the basis of a “significant procedural irregularity”, and will not be able to challenge the underpinning principles of the TEF or the academic judgement of panels.
Dennis Farrington, co-author of The Law of Higher Education, said that universities would find it hard to overturn their result on the basis that TEF metrics did not adequately reflect teaching or that the benchmarking system was unfair.
“The TEF is a voluntary process so the terms and conditions must have been accepted by those who decided to apply for an award,” said Professor Farrington, a visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies. “It's really too bad if an institution now says the process was flawed – this should have been raised at the beginning.”
If a university was unsuccessful in its appeal, it could take the matter to court for a judicial review, yet the question of bias was “notoriously difficult” to prove, said Professor Farrington.
He pointed to the unsuccessful appeal in 1994 by the Institute of Dental Surgery against a Hefce decision in respect of the 1992 Research Selectivity Exercise – the only challenge of its kind.
“Unless there was some technical glitch with the data, which can easily be sorted out on appeal, there doesn't seem much chance of overturning the result by judicial review,” said Professor Farrington.