Elite universities stumble in first teaching ratings

Top research-intensive universities are among those achieving the lowest rating in the first results of the Teaching Excellence Framework – which rates teaching quality and student outcomes at universities and is believed to be the first scheme of its kind globally.

Among universities failing to achieve a top rating were 13 out of 21 of the elite Russell Group research-intensive universities which took part. Three of them were given the lowest rating (Liverpool, London School of Economics and Political Science and Southampton).

Other high-profile universities with the lowest rating were Goldsmiths college and the School of Oriental and African Studies or SOAS.

The results and the underlying evidence are intended to help students who are thinking about applying to university or college for autumn 2018, and to encourage teaching and learning excellence across the United Kingdom.

The TEF was introduced by the government to build evidence about the performance of the UK’s world-class higher education sector, complementing the existing Research Excellence Framework with an analysis of teaching and learning outcomes.

The system also potentially will fill a gap left by international university rankings whose metrics favour research quality over teaching quality.

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, by introducing the TEF, the UK is leading the way internationally in recognising and rewarding teaching excellence.

The Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “The Teaching Excellence Framework is refocusing the sector’s attention on teaching – putting in place incentives that will raise standards across the sector and giving teaching the same status as research.”

He said the results will help students choose which university or college to study at.

Professor Chris Husbands, chair of the TEF assessment panel and vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, described it as an “ambitious” and “ground-breaking” assessment.

He said: “The Teaching Excellence Framework results offer – for the first time – an overview of teaching excellence across the entire UK higher education sector.

“Alongside the headline results, we are publishing all the data and submissions, and statements of the assessors’ findings. Taken together, this is a set of material on teaching excellence which goes further than has been possible for any other university system in the world.”

A total of 295 universities, colleges and alternative providers of higher education voluntarily took part in the initial TEF. Each provider was rated gold, silver or bronze, or received a provisional award where there was not enough data for a full assessment.

In the assessment, 59 providers were rated gold, 116 were rated silver and 56 were rated bronze.

Excluding those with provisional ratings, a gold award was achieved by 26% of participants, silver by 50% and bronze by 24%.

Independent panel

The TEF awards were decided by an independent panel of experts including academics, students and employer representatives. Drawing on national data, and evidence submitted by each university or college, TEF measures teaching excellence in three key areas:
  • • Teaching quality – Teaching that stimulates and challenges students, and maximises their engagement with their studies.

  • • Learning environment – The effectiveness of resources and activities (such as libraries, laboratories and work experience) that support learning and improve retention, progression and attainment.

  • • Student outcomes – The extent to which all students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieve their educational and professional goals.
The metrics measure student satisfaction, retention, and progression to employment. The metrics take account of differences in student characteristics, entry qualifications and subjects studied. This allowed the assessors to judge teaching excellence and outcomes for the specific students taught in each university or college.

Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the TEF measures the things that students themselves say they care about.

“The UK already has a high bar for quality and standards, which all universities and colleges must meet. But the TEF judges excellence above and beyond this, clearly showing the highest levels across the sector,” she said.

The TEF results and the evidence used in the assessment of the TEF awards will also be published on Unistats and the UCAS website, alongside other information, to help inform prospective students’ choices.

The TEF rating for a given provider is:
  • • Gold for delivering consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for its students. It is of the highest quality found in the UK.

  • • Silver for delivering high quality teaching, learning and outcomes for its students. It consistently exceeds rigorous national quality requirements for UK higher education.

  • • Bronze for delivering teaching, learning and outcomes for its students that meet rigorous national quality requirements for UK higher education.
Participation in the TEF is voluntary. An award will be valid for up to three years. The government has previously indicated that universities and colleges in England that have a TEF award will be able to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation. The Department for Education will confirm the 2018-19 fee caps in due course.

However, Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “These new Teaching Excellence Framework [TEF] ratings are based on a number of publicly available data and are intended to complement the range of other information available to students. They are not a comprehensive assessment of a university's academic quality.”

“This is a trial year and remains voluntary. The challenge will be to develop the system to ensure the information is properly communicated and helpful to students in the decision-making process,” she said.

The scheme will now be subject to a full, independent review in 2019-20 to assess whether it is fit for purpose.

University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell said whether or not the TEF becomes a useful tool for applicants, it will certainly make universities think hard about how they can improve their offer to students.

“We welcome the government’s intention to use the TEF to champion success and drive improvement. As it continues to evolve, it is important that the TEF reflects the different models of teaching excellence which exist across UK higher education and supports innovation.”

She said University Alliance members’ emphasis on teaching excellence has been well recognised in the awards, with five Alliance institutions achieving gold: the universities of Coventry, Huddersfield, Lincoln, Nottingham Trent and Portsmouth.

“However, we don’t want to rest on our laurels – that’s why we have launched the Teaching Excellence Alliance, a programme which will seek to develop, define and champion our distinct model of teaching excellence, sharing best practice and supporting staff development.

“Our aspiration is that this will make a valuable contribution for the sector as a whole, helping us better understand what makes teaching excellent,” she said.

Pockets of excellence

While both Oxford and Cambridge universities, which are regularly in the top 10 of international rankings, earned gold ratings, so too did the likes of Bangor University, ranked 441-450 in the QS World University Rankings 2018, released this month, and 301-350 in the Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings 2017, released last September, and Liverpool John Moores University, not ranked in the QS 2018 rankings, but placed 501-600 in THE’s 2017 rankings.

Professor John G Hughes, vice-chancellor of Bangor University – the only university in Wales to be rated gold – said his institution has maintained a strong commitment to the delivery of a high-quality student experience for many decades.

“Not only do we link research and teaching, but we also provide personalised pastoral care, and provide variety and experimentation in our teaching and learning.

“We strongly believe that students deserve to be exposed to, and to be stretched by, the rigour and intellectual challenges of problem solving within their disciplines.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute*, said the fact that some of the results seem surprising suggests the TEF is working, since it was designed to do something different to other league tables and rankings – to show where there are pockets of excellence that have been ignored and to encourage improvements elsewhere.

But he also warned that the TEF in this early guise is “far from a perfect assessment of teaching and learning”.

“While it tells us a lot of useful things, none of them accurately reflects precisely what goes on in lecture halls. I hope university applicants will use the results in their decision-making but they should do so with caution, not least because the ratings are for whole universities rather than individual courses.”

Paul Ashwin, a professor of higher education, department of educational research, Lancaster University, and a researcher at the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, said in a briefing paper on the TEF published by the Centre for Global Higher Education that a gold award is based on an institutional level assessment and does not tell prospective students about the quality of individual degree programmes.

“This means that it is highly likely that there are excellent degree programmes in universities with bronze awards and less good degree programmes in universities with gold awards.”

* The Higher Education Policy Institute has published various papers on the Teaching Excellence Framework and the metrics that it uses, all of which are available at www.hepi.ac.uk.