Is the teaching excellence framework shaping international student choice?


The teaching excellence framework ratings have been around since June, but their impact on choices made by prospective domestic students seems muted so far. When it comes to international students, however, it’s an entirely different story: there are some striking early changes in the way they research their potential choice of university.

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Between July and September 2016, Tef gold institutions made up 19.1% of all global searches looking at the UK across sites listed on Hotcourses, which accounts for more than 32m searches each year and is used by universities to estimate their volume of applications and enrolments.

In the same time period for 2017, following the introduction of the Tef medals, gold institutions accounted for 24.5% of all searches to the UK, a much higher proportion than would have been expected.

There are also sharp differences by country. For students who are researching UK universities from India, Thailand, Turkey and Brazil there are particularly noticeable increases in interest for Tef gold institutions. For prospective students from India looking at the UK, Tef gold institutions have increased their share of searches from 23.7% to 36.9%, from a country known to be particularly sensitive to reputational signals.

Why is the Tef gaining traction with international students?
International students rely more heavily on rankings as a means to make choices about what and where to study. Many UK-based prospective students will already have a sense about the hierarchy of institutions and what may be best for them. Conversely, international students tend to be less familiar about the selling points of specific universities, their academic strengths and what the campus, town or city may have to offer.

The issue for prospective students isn’t necessarily the availability of information, but rather their ability to understand and navigate the large volumes they receive. This may partly explain why rankings, as a simple, digestible and easily accessed medium, end up being so heavily relied upon by students and their advisers.

League tables and rankings need to be seen in the context of other information that is available. In isolation, they have significant limitations. Prospective international students are unlikely to be following the controversy over the viability of the methodology underpinning the Tef. Taken out of context, they will see the exercise as a government-endorsed ranking of teaching excellence.

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This places a considerable responsibility on the upcoming review of the Tef. It is crucial that whoever is tasked with leading it undertakes in-depth engagement with prospective and current students to understand why they used Tef and what they thought it represented.

What does the Tef mean for brand UK?
The UK is fortunate to be widely regarded as having a first-rate higher education system, so the inter-relationship between Tef medals and the perception of quality for UK universities will be an important one. It is still too early to tell whether universities that received a bronze medal will be regarded as third-rate, but this danger should not be overlooked.

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Although the likes of the London School of Economics and Southampton were given a bronze medal, the Tef medal alone is hardly going to undermine the international reputation these universities enjoy. But for others institutions lacking their international profiles it could be more significant. The government will need to keep a close eye on whether the medal rankings they endorse undermine the international perception we have built for quality across the sector.


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