UK universities are judged against one another and themselves in a myriad of ways, each contributing to differing extents to university ranking league tables. Some of these ways include student satisfaction, graduate prospects, and the quality of research output from a university’s academic staff. This last category is assessed against the REF, or the research excellence framework. Academic research over the assessment period is assessed using one central framework which allocates each submission a grading, from one-star to four-star (or unclassified for that which does not meet the minimum standard). This emphasis on the excellence of research output as a measure by which students might choose one university over another is paralleled in the creation and marketing of the Russell Group, a self-defining university group comprised of some of the UK’s most well-respected and well-known institutions, centred around being committed to producing ‘the very best research’.
Universities in the UK are now being judged on their teaching, as well as the research produced by their academics- the teaching excellence framework (TEF) was introduced in 2017, and compares the quality of undergraduate teaching from institution to institution across a range of standards. Student satisfaction was weighted very heavily in the first incarnation, with this weighting now halved and a ‘supplementary metric’ measuring graduate earnings included instead. Many universities are opting not to submit for the voluntary assessment, with 130+ asking for assessment in 2017 and only 30 submitting for (re)assessment for the 2018 & 2019 cycles. However, there are incentives to participate: universities without a TEF award can charge home students up to £9,000/yr in tuition fees in England, whereas the TEF award allows universities to charge up to £9,250.
The current awards for each institution can be viewed on the Office for Students website. It is clear to see very quickly that many historically well-respected universities are ranked equal to, or lower than, newer universities or those institutions which may not rank so highly by other measures of university success. For instance, LSE was awarded a bronze TEF award, with Durham requiring two tries to get up to the gold standard, whereas Bishop Grosseteste, ranked 119th by a leading league table, was awarded gold on their first attempt.
This presents a dilemma for students, who are faced with often competing data sets when trying to find which university is ‘best’ for them, using any number of differing and contradictory metrics. An additional issue is that of student satisfaction, which can be tied closely to expectations; do students at different universities expect different levels of excellence? If so, would a student at a top 20 university be more inclined to be dissatisfied with their teaching if it did not feel consistently exceptional, in opposition to a student at a university ranked 150? Drawing so heavily on student responses arguably therefore both increases and decreases the utility of the data.
Finally, the TEF gradings are applied to the university’s teaching as a whole, and therefore the course or department which particularly interests a student may not be represented, for better or worse, by the TEF grading. Indeed, this is such an issue that subject-level TEF gradings have been piloted by the Office for Students, with the results of the 2nd round of pilot testing due imminently. Subject-level TEF ought to go some way to make the TEF awards more meaningful for students, as well as to shine sufficient light on institutions helping their graduates onto further study and meaningful employment. With more of an understanding of the subject context of such statistics, universities with exceptional employment outcomes across a wide range of subjects may be read as doing more for their graduates than those who boost their numbers only in the traditionally more directly employable fields.
EIB Admissions provides exceptional support to students, families, and schools throughout the UCAS application process. Get in touch to discuss your UCAS journey, and how to balance the REF, TEF, and league tables to help you reach a decision on the courses and institutions that are best for you- our UCAS expert team of in-house advisors are always happy to answer any questions, so we encourage you to pick up the phone and give us a call at any time!