Students will be the losers as universities grab their gold stars
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.