UK: Why do foreign students care about TEF?
Gold, silver or bronze helps students decide what and where to study. Source: Shutterstock

When you’re not a local, you lack the signals and information needed to help you decide what and where to study. A person born and raised in Bristol would already have a good understanding of what the city is like and what the universities in the area have to offer.

That’s not the case for international students, who are several thousand kilometres away and do not have this luxury of information.

That’s where rankings come in to fill in these gaps, even rankings like the newly introduced Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which have gotten lacklustre response from UK-born students and its methodology skewered by industry experts.

TEF is a new controversial assessment of teaching, learning and student experience proposed by the Conservative government, where universities will be given a ranking of either gold, silver or bronze.

Data from education website Hotcourses show foreign students have been relying on TEF when researching about future courses and universities.

The search results by students from India, Thailand, Turkey and Brazil on Hotcourses, a course search website, show there have been “noticeable” increases in interest in TEF gold institutions.

Prospective students from India upped their share of searches of TEF gold institutions from 23.7 percent to 36.9 percent.

“Between July and September 2016, TEF gold institutions made up 19.1 percent of all global searches looking at the UK across sites listed on Hotcourses, which accounts for more than 32 million searches each year and is used by universities to estimate their volume of applications and enrolments,” Aaron Porter, director of insights at Hotcourses Group wrote in The Guardian.

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

But Porter argues rankings do not only work to provide information, but rather to sieve and add context through the overload of information online. Google a university you’re interested in, and you’ll see that it’s a pretty saturated field of content out there.

But beware of using it as the be-all and end-all of your research on where you want to study at.

TEF, and for that matter, all rankings come with their own baggage of limitations and it would be folly to decide the most important decision of your life on just the TEF, especially if the majority of foreign students were found to be confused over how the TEF even works in the first place, according to a survey released by international student recruitment firm Hobsons EMEA earlier this year.

“League tables and rankings need to be seen in the context of other information that is available. In isolation, they have significant limitations,” Porter wrote.

As for the people behind TEF? Porter called for more in-depth engagement with future and current foreign students as to how they rely on and understand TEF. It’s a big responsibility and one that should be done right.

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