Governments have kept their distance from university league tables, content for newspapers to take the flak associated with such delicate comparisons. Now, however, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will determine whether universities are allowed to charge more than £9,000 in fees.
It will look remarkably like a league table and employ measures that are the mainstays of this guide: student satisfaction, completion and graduate destinations. Details are yet to be finalised — for next year, it will be enough for universities to have passed their latest audit by the Quality Assurance Agency (which all did) in order to raise fees. Beyond that, it is less clear. The TEF is already controversial among students and academics, who argue that the metrics chosen simply do not reflect the quality of teaching.
The results may embarrass some of the universities that tend to grace the upper reaches of our league table, above, and others. That is partly because they do badly in the section of the National Student Survey that gives final-year undergraduates’ views on the teaching, feedback and academic support they received on their course — the first column of our table. The London School of Economics is last on this measure, while Edinburgh, Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London are all in the bottom 10 (see table, left).
Another reason for prestigious institutions to be wary is that the TEF will take account of the average entry qualifications of students to “benchmark” their scores. So Bristol may be in our top 10 for completion with a 4.1% projected dropout rate, but that is higher than the national average for students in its subjects with the same entry grades. The Arts University Bournemouth may do better: although 5.4% are projected to drop out, its benchmark dropout rate is almost twice that figure.
Our table is designed to give prospective students a broad view of universities at undergraduate level, which is why it includes spending on facilities, entry scores and the proportion of good honours degrees. The government is focusing on a narrower range of measures and takes no account of the quality of research in the setting of fees. More measures will be added to the TEF before it is introduced — there are moves to include graduate salaries and to try to measure “learning gain” during a degree. The results will be considered by experts before decisions are made on fee levels.
It all seems certain to place universities in a very different order to today’s league table. St Andrews — third — is one of the few leading universities to feature near the top for student satisfaction with teaching as well. Even Oxford and Cambridge are not in the top 30 on this measure in our new table.
The likes of De Montfort and Coventry could make the TEF’s top 10, according to an early modelling of the metrics by Times Higher Education magazine. De Montfort, 67th in our table and 47th for graduate prospects, was top for employment in the “mock TEF”.
Applicants and their parents may feel that the order produced for the TEF reflects university performance judged against government policy, while The Times and Sunday Times table continues to identify those offering the best all-round experience and career prospects.