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TEF results – making sense of the London effect

London's non-specialist universities have struggled in TEF, and could have done even worse were it not for the panel's discretion. Nona Buckley-Irvine asks why students seem to have a much poorer experience in the capital.
This article is more than 6 years old

Nona worked as a Policy Assistant at Wonkhe.

The ‘London effect’ on university metrics – such as higher dropout rates, poorer NSS scores – is nothing new to the higher education sector.

Speak to a sector colleague at an event about poor satisfaction scores for the LSE or UCL, and cries of “oh, it’s the London effect” are frequently heard. Last week’s TEF results can further help us understand whether an assessment of whether the London effect is something that institutions can rely on as a defence for poor performance.

TEF headlines

At first glance, London’s universities have performed poorly in TEF. 45.8% of all Bronze awards went to London universities, far higher  any other region – with the South East and North West receiving only 12.5% respectively. 21% of Silver awards went to London, and only seven Gold awards in all. This is in spite of London having the largest number of institutions who have entered TEF of any region.

It’s the small and specialist institutions in London that keep the region’s overall performance respectable. 16.7% each of all Gold awards were award respectively in London, the South West, and the East Midlands. So while there may be a significant number of London institutions who perform poorly, there are also a significant number of institutions who do well. But take the small and specialist institutions out and the picture changes drastically. London keeps 45% of the share of awards for Bronze, and 20% at Silver. Only one non-specialist institution in London was awarded Gold: Imperial College London.

The below table the results showing the net ‘flag score’ (see here) on London non-small & specialist higher education institutions.

If we look at the application of the flag criteria specified in the original HEFCE guidance, we see that twelve London universities had their outcomes upgraded from their ‘initial hypothesis’ by the panels. It is likely that the ‘London effect’ was in mind when they did so.

Falling far behind

When looking beyond TEF’s flagging system at the Z scores showing us the extent of universities’ deviations from their benchmarked standard on the core metrics, it appears that many London universities have a lot of work to do in order to improve their results next time around. King’s College London, University College London, London South Bank University, the University of Arts London, and Queen Mary, all have net Z scores ranging from -34.7 to -15.3. Meanwhile, Kingston University, LSE, Goldsmiths, the Roehampton, and St George’s all have net Z scores ranging from -32.8 to -14.6. While the overall Z score was not a primary deliberation for the TEF panels, it does give us an indication of how ‘far away’ some institutions might be away from improvement.


A ‘London effect’ in the National Student Survey has been gathering attention in recent years. LSE has noticeably poor satisfaction scores for academic support, as do UCL and Kings, with LSE’s score -13.4 points below their benchmark, and Kings and UCL falling -11.7 points and -11.2 points short respectively. London South Bank University and Kingston University also score particularly poorly for academic support compared to their benchmarks.

The lack of a campus community must play some part as well. Compare to the East Midlands, where primarily campus-based universities have achieved a stunning seven Gold awards and one Silver. It is a lot more difficult for students to get time and support if they are not *at* their university, but rather in one of London’s many and varied suburbs. The ‘contact hours’ effect may thus be greater in London, with students feeling more disgruntled about relatively low contact hours when located far from their campus. And then there is research showing that all Londoners are overall more miserable than the general population…

Or what about the possibility of complacency surrounding student recruitment? London is an incredibly attractive option for students from both within and outside the UK. Universities outside the capital aren’t able to fall back on the attraction of being in one of the greatest cities in the world, putting greater pressure on the to maintain their standards if they are to offer something alternative in the market.

Reasons to worry?

There certainly are, and some soul searching as to why so many students in London are unhappy with their university provision is required if things are to get any better for London universities. While the question of NSS questions on academic support (and also feedback), may be influenced by being in London, it can’t be the full picture. Both research-intensive and teaching-intensive universities in the capital share similar challenges. Perhaps they would benefit from working together to better understand and tackle the issue.

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