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What could TEF mean for international recruitment?

Some in the sector have claimed that TEF could harm UK universities' international reputations. Nona Buckley-Irvine looks at those institutions which have the most to gain and lose from their outcomes.
This article is more than 5 years old

Nona worked as a Policy Assistant at Wonkhe.

One complaint from some universities is that TEF could wreak havoc for those reliant on high numbers of international students.

Recent research by UUKi highlighted that the reputation of a university is the most important factor in determining where an international applicant will chose. It also found that international students rank UK universities top for student satisfaction. But with the ‘Olympic style’ award system introduced with TEF Two, the government may wounded the reputation of those providers who admit high numbers of international students and are now ranked Bronze. Can institutions mitigate this impact, and indeed, do they really need to?

Reputation matters

TEF is a reputational challenge for universities who have lost out. According to UUKi, the a university’s website is the top influencer in international applicants’ choices. As we covered last week, Gold universities are only to proud to showcase their achievements, adding their Gold ‘badges’ to marketing materials, and even undertaking rebrands to reflect their new status.

It’s reasonable to anticipate that Bronze universities will not be so eager to highlight their ‘below benchmark’ status. This represents a considerable marketing challenge. UUKi’s research highlights that while social media remains a modest influencer on applicants, it is fast growing. These avenues are the ones most likely to suffer from the ‘TEF effect’, while other channels such as word of mouth will presumably remain relatively ‘TEF free’. Communicating to an international audience the complexities of TEF’s ranking system will be a challenge for marketing and communications teams up and down the UK. But who stands to lose out?

More to gain or lose?

Luckily for the sector as a whole, the ten institutions most dependent on their international student intake (including EU students) have done pretty well. The University of Buckingham, with 49% of its undergraduate intake non-UK, is unlikely to suffer with its robust Gold rating.

However, the most high profile Bronze award – the London School of Economics – has nearly half of its undergraduate cohort coming from overseas. LSE will likely rest on its formidable performance in world league tables and research prestige in order to overcome the negative press that TEF has caused.

SOAS is next on our list of internationally-dependent Bronze performers. Like LSE, its international reputation in a specialist domain may help it withstand the negative impact of TEF.

InstitutionProportion of non-UK students as a total of all undergraduatesTEF Award
The University of Buckingham49%Gold
London School of Economics and Political Science49%Bronze
University of the Arts, London44%Silver
Royal College of Music43%Gold
Imperial College London43%Gold
The University of St Andrews42%Gold
Royal Academy of Music42%Gold
University College London40%Silver
The School of Oriental and African Studies38%Bronze
City, University of London†33%Silver

Many of institutions most reliant on non-UK student recruitment are based in London, and as I have noted before, it is London’s universities that have struggled most in TEF. But will these poor TEF outcomes really dent international perceptions of London as a place to study? And can universities outside the capital use TEF to draw international applicants away from London into the provinces? There are eleven higher education institutions – all outside of London – with very small international student populations that could use TEF as an opportunity to expand in the international student market.

InstitutionProportion of non-UK students as a total of all undergraduatesTEF Award
Falmouth University9%Gold
The Nottingham Trent University8%Gold
The University of Lincoln8%Gold
Norwich University of the Arts7%Gold
University of Derby7%Gold
Liverpool John Moores University5%Gold
Harper Adams University3%Gold
Edge Hill University2%Gold
Liverpool Hope University2%Gold
Bishop Grosseteste University1%Gold

Unknown unknowns

We’re yet to see the full impact of TEF and its impact (or lack thereof) as a marketing tool. League table providers such as the Guardian have so far stated that they will not use the ratings to compliment their own rankings. 

TEF is yet to prove that it can be influential in the market, and we don’t know whether students will pay notice to it above other sources of information. But universities are obsessed with their public reputations, especially internationally. Institutions will either be praying that prospective students are oblivious to TEF, or not, depending on how they’ve done. 


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