Top universities criticise new assessment after many fail to receive gold award

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Top universities have criticised the first major assessment of higher education teaching standards after many leading institutions failed to achieve the highest award.

More than half of Russell Group institutions - considered among the best in the country - that entered the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) did not score a gold rating.

One leading institution, Southampton, which was awarded bronze, confirmed it will be looking to appeal the decision.

The Russell Group said it does not believe the TEF measures "absolute quality" and that would-be students need clear guidance about what the results mean and how they should be used.

But Coventry University, a newer institution which scored a gold, said the TEF showed that universities cannot rely on their "historic reputation".

The TEF was introduced by the last government in a bid to gain more evidence about teaching and learning in UK universities, with proposals to link quality to tuition fee increases.

Universities which choose to enter are assessed on a range of measures, including student satisfaction, drop-out rates and what students do after they graduate.

Overall, 295 universities, colleges and alternative education providers took part, with 26% (59 institutions) gaining a gold award, 50% (116) rated silver and 24% (56) achieving bronze.

These figures exclude institutions that received a provisional award because there was not enough data for a full assessment.

A breakdown shows that among 134 universities and specialist higher education institutions alone that were given ratings - which are valid for three years - 32% (43) scored gold, 50% (67) silver and 18% (24) got bronze.

And an analysis shows that among the 21 Russell Group universities that took part, eight (38%) were given a gold rating, 10 (48%) were awarded silver and three (14%) got a bronze.

A gold award means that a university is of the highest quality found in the UK, providing "consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for its students", while the silver award was given for consistently exceeding "rigorous national quality requirements for UK higher education" and bronze was given to those that meet these national requirements.

Those awarded a bronze or higher - all institutions that took part besides those rated provisional - are now set to be able to raise tuition fees, which currently stand at around £9,000 - in line with inflation in 2018/19.

Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which published the 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."

She added: "To hold any TEF award universities and colleges must already have cleared a high bar. The TEF measures excellence over and above this bar."

Acting Director of the Russell Group Dr Tim Bradshaw warned: "The announcement earlier this year of an independent review of the TEF process was welcome. We want applicants to have all the information they need to take the right choice for them but there is more work to be done here.

"TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact."

As the results were published, one of the Group's institutions, Southampton said it will be looking to appeal its bronze rating, adding it believed it had made a good case for a higher award.

The University's president and vice-chancellor Sir Christopher Snowden 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."

Professor John Latham, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University, which is not part of the Russell Group, said a "new order" has been established in university rankings.

"It's a clear message that universities must work harder for a recognised environment of success and that students are looking for more than historic reputation.

"They want to be taught by committed professionals who care about preparing them for the global workplace.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said there are concerns about how international students will view the results.

"The fear is that students, beyond the UK in particular, will use these results as the basis for deciding which UK university to attend, which could damage some institutions," she said.

TEF Panel chair Professor Chris Husbands said that within individual awards, universities may have elements of others - for example a university awarded bronze could have elements of gold or silver, adding he hoped the TEF would provide clear ratings to be used with other information.