Stu­dents will be the losers as uni­ver­si­ties grab their gold stars

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - Afua hirsch

If the goal of the Gov­ern­ment’s new uni­ver­si­ties’ league table is to dis­rupt the es­tab­lished or­der in higher ed­u­ca­tion, it’s cer­tainly work­ing. The Teach­ing Ex­cel­lence Frame­work (TEF), whose first round of re­sults were pub­lished yes­ter­day, has hurled a grenade into con­ven­tional rank­ings.

Of the 295 uni­ver­si­ties that took part in TEF – which rates in­sti­tu­tions as gold, sil­ver or bronze – just a third of Rus­sell Group scored the top mark. The Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics (LSE) – 25th place ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tional world rank­ings – was ranked in the low­est tier.

We shouldn’t re­ject TEF for dif­fer­ent re­sults. There would be no point in ever in­tro­duc­ing new as­sess­ment sys­tems if they sim­ply repli­cated the old. And its spirit is laud­able, tak­ing into ac­count lev­els of student sup­port, drop-out rates, and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. It also aims to ad­dress long-term fail­ings in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem – ac­count­ing for the di­ver­sity of their student body, and cater­ing to stu­dents from so-called non-tra­di­tional back­grounds.

But it’s hard to take se­ri­ously its com­mit­ment to di­ver­sity if its mo­ti­va­tion is the Gov­ern­ment’s de­sire to make uni­ver­si­ties less af­ford­able. The Gov­ern­ment-led scheme opens the door for uni­ver­si­ties scor­ing bronze or higher to in­crease fees – cur­rently around £9,000 – in line with in­fla­tion in 2018/19.

Even more fun­da­men­tally, there are valid method­olog­i­cal con­cerns. The re­sults were heav­ily in­flu­enced by the information con­tained in a 15-page sub­mis­sion from the uni­ver­si­ties them­selves – anal­o­gous to award­ing places to stu­dents who had the most im­pres­sive per­sonal state­ments. Other bench­marks in­cluded judg­ing uni­ver­si­ties against their own tar­gets, pe­nal­is­ing a univer­sity with a low dropout rate that failed to re­duce it a lot in favour of a univer­sity with a high dropout rate that beat its own tar­get of re­duc­ing it by a lit­tle.

TEF of­fers a be­wil­der­ing new set of data for the stu­dents, in a world where the rank­ing of uni­ver­si­ties seems in­creas­ingly chaotic. Ear­lier this month Read­ing Univer­sity was forced by the Ad­ver­tis­ing Stan­dards Agency to re­move a claim on its web­site that it was in the top 1 per cent of uni­ver­si­ties in the world, a statis­tic that seems to have in­volved not a small amount of im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

Now stu­dents are faced with the uned­i­fy­ing spec­ta­cle of those who scored gold singing TEF’S praises, and those who scored bronze con­demn­ing it. There are some ex­cep­tions, like An­thony Sel­don, vice-chan­cel­lor of Buck­ing­ham Univer­sity, which TEF ranked first in the coun­try, but who has nev­er­the­less de­scribed it as “far from per­fect”.

Mean­while, the Na­tional Union of Stu­dents has de­scribed it as “another mean­ing­less univer­sity rank­ing sys­tem …[which] fail[s] to cap­ture any­thing about teach­ing qual­ity”.

TEF chair Chris Hus­bands has also ac­knowl­edged there is room for im­prove­ment, and said its find­ings should not be taken as “head­line re­sults”. But it’s hard to see how a student try­ing to com­pare 231 in­sti­tu­tions could read them as any­thing but. Stu­dents – in need of ob­jec­tive as­sess­ments of which uni­ver­si­ties will real­is­ti­cally of­fer them both a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and one which is re­spected in the mar­ket­place – are the clear losers here.

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