Wooden seats in an empty lecture hall

The first teaching excellence framework (TEF) was released to much fanfare yesterday. 295 institutions took part and were awarded wither bronze, silver or gold according to their standard of undergraduate teaching. 59 institutions received a gold award, whilst 116 got silver.

Many of the top universities have failed to perform as well as they hoped, including the LSE which was awarded bronze, although currently ranked second in the world for social sciences according to the QS. In fact. Among the elite Russell Group universities just eight out of 21 institutions that took part were awarded the gold rating, while ten got silver. Liverpool and Southampton, both highly regarded universities in their areas, were also awarded bronze.

Equally, some universities which don’t have a top academic reputation gained gold, such as Nottingham Trent, De Montfort, Northampton and Lincoln.

Obviously, those that achieved top marks have praised the new framework, for example Professor Dominic Shellard, vice chancellor of De Mortfort, said the results illustrated “a real watershed moment for British universities..[demonstrating] the passing of the old guard and the ushering in of a new hierarchy.”

“For a long time, league tables have assessed universities on their longevity and social standing, but I think the big thing about the TEF – which is what the Russell Group don’t like – is it takes into account the diversity of your applicants.”

However those that performed below par have dismissed the system, for example Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of Southampton, stated that it was "hard to have confidence in a TEF which appears devoid of any meaningful assessment of teaching".

"I know I am not alone in having deep concerns about its subjective assessment, its lack of transparency, and with different benchmarks for each institution removing any sense of equity and equality of assessment," he said.

"Our own student satisfaction metrics, including satisfaction with teaching, are better than some of those universities who have been awarded silver and gold today.”

Why was the TEF created?

The TEF was introduced by the last government in a bid to gain more evidence about teaching and learning in UK universities, to help prospective students make better-informed choices about which university to attend. Universities that have a TEF award will be able to increase tuition fees in line with inflation.

Its introduction comes from a long line of measures that universities have adopted, starting from the THE-QS World University Rankings which started publishing the top universities in the world in 2004.

What does the TEF measure?

The rankings are awarded by an independent panel of 27 assessors made up of academics, students, employers and experts in widening participation, and are based on statistics (not actual inspections of lectures or other teaching) including dropout rates, student satisfaction survey results and graduate employment rates – including the proportion of graduates who go on to work in high-skill jobs.

Differences between institutions, such as entry qualifications and subjects studied, were taken into account by the panel.

the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) said the rankings measured the issues that students cared about:

  • high-quality, engaged teaching
  • a supportive, stimulating learning environment
  • having the knowledge and skills they need to achieve their potential
  • the opportunity to progress to a good job or further study

What the experts think

Some praise the TEF, for example Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the HEFCE, which published the TEF results said: “Students currently invest significant amounts of time, and indeed money and incurring debt, in their higher education. They are quite right to expect a high-quality academic experience.”

Universities 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.”

However, the National Union of Students has dismissed the TEF results as “another meaningless university ranking system which no one asked for. The TEF doesn’t offer students more information but less, by painting an inaccurate picture of universities. When the independent review of the TEF is undertaken we hope to see renewed opposition from across the sector, with the voices of students placed front and centre.”

Although many critics have also claimed that none of the indicators directly measure teaching quality, the results are expected to nevertheless have a significant impact on student recruitment, in particular in the international market.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has said that students should remember the TEF did not "accurately reflects precisely what goes on in lecture halls [and that although] university applicants will use the results in their decision-making…they should do so with caution, not least because the ratings are for whole universities rather than individual courses."

These results will also mean that universities work hard over the coming years to increase the indictors measured on the TEF, rather than their overall university experience or what students are actually looking for.