TEF: how will school pupils considering university use the results?

Following publication of the TEF results, what do prospective university students think of the new tool? Seeta Bhardwa writes

July 7 2017

As the dust settles after Hurricane TEF swept its way through UK higher education, it seems the right time to return to one of the main reasons it was set up in the first place: to help students choose a university. 

With this in mind, I've been speaking to students and staff in secondary schools to find out how they are planning to use the results. 

In case you need bringing up to speed, the TEF (or the teaching excellence framework) is a government-stamped rating system that aims to measure excellence in teaching based across six metrics and a 15-page submission from each university.

What is the TEF? Results of the teaching excellence framework

A multitude of academics have been throwing their opinions into the ring, but when it comes down to it, one of the main aims of the TEF was to create an easy-to-reference tool so that students can find the universities and higher education institutions with the highest teaching quality.

It is fair to say that the publication of the first TEF caused some upset in the higher education sector, particularly within those universities that have historically been branded “prestigious”, but which ended up with bronze ratings. 

Three such universities were the London School of Economics and Political Science, the University of Liverpool and the University of Southampton. They all received a bronze rating despite being part of the Russell Group, a group of universities that markets itself as "committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector".

This result was so unexpected and unwelcome that both Liverpool and Southampton, along with Durham and York (both rated silver) will be appealing their results.  

Anya Bukshi, an environment and development MSc student at LSE says that she too was “perplexed” about the bronze rating for her university and has had nothing but excellent teaching while at the institution.

She says that the university has put a lot of time, money and effort into improving services for students and emphasises that it is the responsibility of students to then engage with these services to make the most out of their university experience.

Linus Smith, a second-year French and Spanish student from the University of Bristol (silver) says that the “introduction of the TEF is a step towards dismantling the long bias that has seen many “top-ranked universities cruise on their name alone”. He continues by saying that the introduction of the TEF will see “a more stringent accountability emerge” where “universities such as Bristol that have benefited from their name are now slowly being forced to focus more on the students”.

TEF: What do students think of their university’s ratings?

However, perhaps the demographic that has most to gain from the TEF are students who are about to go to university. It is important to explore their engagement with the tool too. Will they continue to select institutions based on the solid reputations they have built up over time, or will they base their choices on the TEF ratings?

Euodia Dodd from Backwell School in North Somerset, who is in year 12 and will begin applying to universities soon -  says that she “will be using the TEF if I am unsure about which universities to choose", as she believes it "helps narrow down the universities based on the standard of teaching”.

She goes on to say that “the fact that it is a government tool probably gives it more credibility than most other sources as it implies the universities have been rated by experts in the field of education”.

Another year 12 student, from Clevedon School in North Somerset, told Times Higher Education: “I have used quite a few different league tables and rankings to help determine which university to visit. This is the first system I have seen introduced by the government and should make universities take notice.”

Toby Rome, the head of sixth form at a secondary school in Bristol, says that he will be sharing the TEF with his students and encouraging them to use it. “However, I will also be pointing out that it is just one of many indicators, and that it is far from definitive (especially as it is new and disputed in some corners). As it is, there are already different league tables for things like student satisfaction, employability and other factors, and universities often move up and down all the time,” he added. 

TEF: striking the balance between teaching and research for students
TEF: what does a recent graduate think of the framework?

One key thing that may influence student choice further down the line is the proposal to link TEF scores with tuition fee rates. University tuition fees was one of the most hotly debated topics in the lead up to the 2017 general election and was credited as one of the reasons for the high youth voter turnout. Students will be closely monitoring any factors that may influence tuition fee rates. 

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which put the TEF together, stated that currently universities which take part in the TEF will be able to raise their tuition fees in line with inflation. Universities that achieve gold or silver may be able to raise their costs above the rate of inflation - although this is still to be debated in Parliament. 

A year 11 student from Clevedon School told Times Higher Education that they had yet to start looking at universities, but said "it is good to know that they are held to account and cannot simply charge lots of money for tuition fees without offering a good service”.

Additionally, a 2017 survey of university applicants by the University Partnerships Programme found that just over a third (36 per cent) would be more willing to pay for a university with a gold TEF rating. Only 11 per cent said they would be willing to pay more for a silver.

Furthermore, UPP polled students in 2016 and 2017 to find out whether a good TEF rating would influence their choice. In 2016, 84 per cent said that a good rating would influence their choice and in 2017, 70 per cent said the TEF would influence their choice. It is interesting that - according to this survey, at least - the influence of the TEF has diminished in the space of a year. 

There will undoubtedly be an impact on how international students choose their university. Many international students select universities based on prestige and reputation, so their views on certain universities may now be thrown off balance. Furthermore, while international student fees are currently uncapped, it could be that universities with gold ratings may use this to their advantage and increase their prices. 

There are undoubtedly creases that will need ironing out with the TEF, and it is to be hoped that the government pays mind to the students who will actually be using it when assessing the framework. What is clear from our discussions is that students will be using the TEF, and consider it a helpful tool, but will be consulting it alongside other rankings and resources. 

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