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23rd June 2017

Controversial TEF rankings shake up Higher Education hierarchies

The release of the controversial Teaching Excellence Framework’s results shocked many, with only eight Russell Group universities receiving gold, although many have questioned the rankings’ validity

The results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) were released yesterday with only eight of all 24 Russell Group universities receiving the highest ranking of gold, while many other leading universities were handed a bronze ranking, in what is the first league table of teaching standards at universities.

The University of Manchester received silver status along with 116 other universities across the UK, missing out on the prestige of gold status awarded to 59 institutions.

Many have commented the new assessment of teaching standards has disrupted the traditional higher education rankings. One of the leading universities to receive the bronze ranking was the London School of Economics, rated second in the QS global rankings for social sciences.

The TEF rankings have also caused some controversy due to the metrics on which the results are based: dropout rates, graduate employment rates and student satisfaction survey results from the National Student Survey. Critics argue none of these statistics can be seen as a measure of teaching quality.

The TEF was introduced by the last Conservative government to assess teaching quality in higher education, with the initial plan being that those institutions who receive the higher rankings would be able to raise tuition fees in line with inflation.

During the passing of the Higher Education and Research Bill through parliament, the House of Lords passed an amendment to the bill that would de-link the TEF from tuition fees.

In April it was announced plans to link the results of TEF with fees would be postponed until there had been an independent review of the TEF ratings.

The NUS claimed both of these developments as victories for the student movement. According to Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), “Without the hard work of students and students’ unions over the past eighteen months, this Bill would have been even more harmful for the future of higher education in this country.

“NUS’ hard won amendments including securing a student representative on the board of the Office for Students, heightened scrutiny to new providers and a legal requirement for institutions to publish attainment gaps go some way towards putting students’ interests in the Bill, but still this is not the Bill students want or deserve.”

In a statement about the TEF awards, the University of Manchester Students’ Union said they didn’t “recognise the TEF as an adequate measurement of teaching excellence, nor a legitimate mechanism to grant awards to universities.”

They also expressed concern that the TEF will not help students decide between universities as it claims to, due to a lack of transparency, as the “complex array of splits, benchmarking, flagging and Z-scores that are used to justify each award are not common knowledge”.

The Students’ Union added that despite “claiming to put students ‘at the heart of the system’, the government ignored student consultations on the construction of the TEF and students all around the country have since made their opposition clear” through a boycott of the National Student Survey.

The University of Manchester Students’ Union was one of 25 to take part in the boycott. The aim of the boycott was to invalidate the survey’s results, leading to the TEF being seriously hindered, although this year’s TEF ratings were based on “last year’s NSS results, (…) unaffected by the boycott”, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Education, speaking to the student newspaper Varsity.

In response to the TEF results, the acting director of the Russell Group, Dr. Tim Bradshaw, said: “Our members provide an outstanding student experience where teaching is enhanced by access to world-class research and facilities.

“This is a trial year. We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time.”

A University of Manchester spokesman claimed the university’s silver status “acknowledges the tremendous progress our University has made in recent years to bring about significant improvements in the student experience particularly across teaching quality, assessment and feedback”.

However they admitted that “robust and credible measures of teaching quality will take time to develop”, claiming that it is “widely acknowledged within the higher education sector that the metrics used in this TEF will be refined to more accurately reflect the quality of teaching, learning and the student experience” and promised to “engage with government, the Russell Group, Universities UK and our students throughout this process”.

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