Going global? – internationalisation and the TEF

Are universities part of a global vision for the UK, or simply an extension of UK secondary education? There is some evidence that the TEF has international impact despite being parochial in its compilation. However, there are simple ways in which the TEF could be more ambitious.

Debate about the impact of the TEF on international applications was heightened with the evidence that there was more interest in gold rated institutions from Hotcourses data. At the same time, a survey of international students by Hobsons found that TEF is one of a number of factors that are important to international students, including reputation, quality of service during admissions process and affordability.

The most recent Hotcourses data, analysed by Wonkhe’s David Kernohan, suggests that TEF ratings are far from having a simple effect. Trends in interest are clearly based on a complex set of factors. That being said, there may be some small but positive long-term impact on gold rated institutions.

What does TEF say about the international student experience?

And this is where our general concern about whether students understand the TEF has special bite. Because the TEF has little to say about the outcome or learning environment of international students – and actually penalises institutions with a global outlook for UK students.

Of the six building blocks of the TEF (the core metrics), three use data for UK students only: those for continuation, employment and high skilled employment are only for UK domiciled students. This is also true of two of the three new ‘supplementary TEF metrics’ as they use the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) database, which does not include international students. Worse still, the LEO data penalises institutions with global ambitions for UK students, as every UK student working overseas is actually counted as a negative in the LEO employment rate.

The problems that arise are not only for international students trying to use TEF as a guide to their student experience. This inward-focused TEF could lead to a parochialism in UK universities, both in terms of their ambitions for home students but also in terms of a general lack of recognition of the global provision of excellent education. And that creates problems for the UK, not only in terms of the earnings of the sector but also by limiting the soft power and global influence it creates for the UK.

Of course, many others have argued that the TEF’s use of relative ranking scales is ripe for misunderstanding internationally, and looks at odds with the simpler message of other governments who globally promote the excellence of all of their universities. However, I would argue that the TEF obscures the global span of what UK universities do, and does not reward excellence in teaching international students (even when they are in the UK). And what kind of incentives does the LEO data establish, when it penalises universities where a high proportion of UK students who go to on to international work?

Some of the solutions are quite simple. Non-continuation data for international students can be produced and compared. The LEO employment rate can be adjusted for the proportion of UK-students working overseas (using other data). Finding employment metrics for international students might be more difficult as it becomes hard to find comparators for employment rates but this can investigated in the upcoming Independent Review. Importantly the Review needs to consider how revisions to the TEF can enhance UK universities’ provision of global education.

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