Teaching excellence ratings by subject announced

The government is extending its new system of rating teaching excellence and exposing poor quality teaching in universities to enable potential students to compare the ratings by subject, in addition to by the university as a whole.

Claiming a “global first”, the new Universities and Science Minister, Sam Gyimah, launched the new tool on 12 March. It will rate universities either gold, silver or bronze by subject – holding them to account for the quality of their teaching, learning environment and graduate outcomes.

It follows his promise of a “revolution in accountability” when he launched the Office for Students, the new higher education regulatory body, a fortnight ago.

By extending the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework – or TEF – to subject level the government said it aims to:
  • • Help prospective students compare the different courses on offer across institutions, to “make sure they get the most out of their university education”;

  • • Shine a light on course quality, revealing which universities are providing excellent teaching, and which are “coasting or relying on their research reputation”.
The Department for Education has launched a 10-week public consultation, seeking views on the design of the new framework. This will run alongside a pilot of the scheme, involving 50 universities and colleges, including the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, De Montfort University and the Open University.

Gyimah said: “Prospective students deserve to know which courses deliver great teaching and great outcomes – and which ones are lagging behind.

“In the age of the student, universities will no longer be able to hide if their teaching quality is not up to the world-class standard that we expect.”

He said the new subject-level TEF will give students more information than ever before, allowing them to drill down and compare universities by subject.

“This will level the international playing field to help applicants make better choices, and ensure that more students get the value for money they deserve from higher education.”

The plans will build on the work already undertaken under the first wave of TEF – which awards universities with an overall rating of gold, silver and bronze.

The Department for Education said the new framework recognises that outcomes and teaching quality differ not just by university but also by course, and will allow students to access information about teaching quality for a specific subject.

Those universities and colleges taking part in the pilot scheme for subject-level TEF are working with the sector in academic years 2017-18 and 2018-19, with the intention that the first full year of subject-level TEF will take place in 2019-20.

The department said the framework will take into account student feedback, drop-out rates and graduate outcomes to help deliver the objectives of the review of post-18 education launched by the prime minister last month, ensuring that students get the value for money they deserve from higher education.

The minister will also launch an open data competition, the first of its kind in the UK higher education sector, which will use selected government data on universities so that tech companies and coders can create apps to help prospective students decide where to apply.

This competition will build on the government’s recently published Longitudinal Education Outcomes dataset, which gives information on employment and salaries after graduation.

By democratising access to information about courses and their outcomes, it will help all applicants, regardless of their background, make better decisions and get better value for money, the department said.

Gyimah said: “Our new open data competition will open up government data on universities for the first time. It will harness the creativity and enterprise of coders and tech businesses to create new tools to help applicants get value for money. And it puts government data to work for students, democratising the information government holds about universities.”

‘Oversimplified rankings’

MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, welcomed the consultation on the new phase of TEF, but Dr Greg Walker, its chief executive, said the TEF so far has been “more a way of benchmarking institutions according to student satisfaction levels, earnings and employment outcomes than an assessment tool for teaching quality itself”.

He also said concerns remained about “how oversimplified three-tier rankings can reinforce the stratification of higher education providers according to hierarchies of prestige and perception”.

He said this is especially the case “as we remain without a statistically reliable system of presenting long-term earnings and employment outcomes for students by course”.

Stephanie Harris, a policy analyst for Universities UK, said in her Universities UK blog that one of the most welcome changes in tack in the latest TEF proposals is genuine consultation on whether a teaching intensity measure would be valuable.

The UK government has for a long time wanted to develop such a measure due to evidence found in surveys that student satisfaction is linked to the number of contact hours, an issue which may have been heightened by the tripling of the tuition fee cap in 2012.

Harris said there is genuine concern in the higher education sector about “whether a teaching intensity measure can realistically capture all forms of teaching, the key role that independent study plays in higher education and the numerous unintended consequences it could create”.

New research released last week by QS Enrolment Solutions shows that the TEF has the potential to be one of the most influential factors in the student decision-making process.

Prospective students who are aware of the TEF recognised it as one of the best indicators of teaching quality at a given institution, giving it more importance than student satisfaction and membership of the Russell Group comprising leading research universities. However, 76% of prospective students said that the TEF hasn’t been well explained to them by the sector.