Sir, which universities are the best?

It is UCAS Week for our Year 12 students and we are getting them involved in the nuts and bolts of the UCAS process.  By far the most common question that students always ask me is whether the university is any good?  At which point, I make a big song and dance about the importance of them carrying out their own research.  I point them towards the following tools: unistats, guardian league tables, sunday times league tables, complete guide to university.  This comes with the usual caveats and health warnings about league tables as they all use slightly different methodologies, the positions change each year and that course level comparisons are much more useful that direct institution comparisons.

With 40,000 courses at over 130 institutions the choices can be quite overwhelming.  With the considerable sums of money involved it is essential that students become engaged in this process.  Alongside the web searches, we always recommend an open day or campus tour to ‘kick the tyres’.  However, there is potentially a new measure that might help us make sense of all the data.

The Government have finally released the results of a new ranking system for universities called the Teaching Excellence Framework. (It seems as though the results had been delayed due to election purdah).

It was felt that some universities had become too focused on research at the cost of their teaching, students had started to complain that their degrees were poor value for money. The TEF is an attempt to redress this balance and put teaching at the heart of their rankings.   Ostensibly, this sounds like a sensible way forward, a means of judging the quality of the teaching and learning.  However, as there is no real consensus on the best way to judge teaching in Universities, the jury is out on the usefulness of this exercise.

Universities are now ranked gold, silver and bronze according to their performance across a series of metrics and a written submission.  Not as awful as our Ofsted process, but just as data driven.  The judgements are based on the following:

  • Students’ views on quality of teaching; assessment and feedback; and how much academic support they receive from staff (National Student Survey – NSS).
  • Dropout rates (Higher Education Statistics Agency).
  • Employability.  The annual destinations of leavers from the higher education survey supplies the last two metrics: one on whether graduates have moved on to jobs or further study six months after graduation, and the other on whether they are doing graduate-level – that is, highly skilled – work.

The full rankings are here:

Controversially, only 8 out of 21 Russell’s were awarded a gold and not all took part in this first round of applications.  An important part of the strategy (the carrot) was that those institutions who achieved a gold would be able to raise their tuition fees. This seems unlikely to happen in this parliament due to the weakness of May’s majority but it is likely we will see this idea return as funding remains a perennial problem in a markertised HE sector.

I guess the universities will be worried about how this will influence their future recruitment and there has been a robust fight-back from their representatives about the validity of this exercise.  There remains a lack of consensus on how to measure the quality of teaching in HE.  Arguably, the current metrics are proxies for learning as no physical observation of the teaching takes place.

The intention is to reduce drop-out rates and improve student retention but as we know any system which focuses on outcomes may be open to all sorts of abuse and gaming as time goes by.  The secondary sector has long been the victim of perverse incentives for example selective admission criteria for academies and A-C educational triage.

The system may have unintended consequences and over time they will tweak the metrics which will make comparisons more difficult but maybe it is not all bad. It made me think about our own journey in judging the quality of a provision.  We have come almost full circle in the use of value-added, A-C headlines, Ebacc, Achievement 8 and finally Progress 8 in the search for the ‘holy grail’ of fairer comparison.

Moreover, the inclusion of the student experience and fair access have been long overdue from HE accountability and I welcome the fact that they are becoming more transparent.  I doubt the elite will have anything to fear at the moment, but it is nice to see the underdogs have their day in the sun (Plymouth – anyone?).  It will not hurt us to have more information to help students make an informed choice.  This current version of the TEF may still have more questions than answers.

· BBC ‘Leading universities rated ‘bronze’ under new ranking system
· Independent ‘Top UK University Rankings
· Guardian – ‘Many top uk universities miss out on top award in controversial new test