Some of England’s elite universities found themselves in an unusually awkward position recently having flunked out badly in a new ranking system that seeks to measure teaching excellence.

University executives, hitherto used to modestly accepting the acclaims of greatness and prestige bestowed upon them by research-based league tables, have been busy explaining away why this interloper doesn’t matter and/or is so flawed it need not be taken seriously.

Conversely, there has been more than a little schadenfreude and glee from institutions that woke up one morning bathed in the sunlight of unaccustomed success.

Under the UK Government’s newly released Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) universities across the country have been ranked gold, silver or bronze based on the quality of their teaching, learning and student experience.

The TEF assesses performance in teaching quality, learning environment such as libraries, laboratories and work experience, and student outcomes in regard to their professional and educational goals.

According to Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and chair of the TEF panel, it signals a new way of thinking for universities.

In the past, he says, universities have thought more about inputs, processes and outputs.

“Attention has been concentrated on staff, technology, curriculum, assessments and degree classifications. But this new focus on outcomes is a potential game changer. Not because outcomes are all that matter, but because, in a mass higher education system, they do matter … they require universities to think hard about the impact of what they do and how they evaluate it.”

As reported in UK’s Daily Telegraph, more than half of the leading Russell Group institutions missed out on the top rating.

The London School of Economics, the 25th best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education university rankings, received a bronze award, while University College London, 15th best in the world according to the same ranking, received a silver award – the same as Wrexham Glyndwr and London Metropolitan University, which came second and third from the bottom in this year’s Complete University Guide.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham – which received the highest possible award in all TEF categories – told the Telegraph he thought the new ratings would be “the biggest single catalyst to good teaching that the university sector has ever had”.

Professor John Latham, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, which received a gold ranking, said the results marked a “new order” for higher education.

“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.”

Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth University, told The Guardian that the TEF means “we now have to focus much more on a holistic offer for our students and to think harder about how we prepare them for a rounded role in work and our communities”.

“Universities that fail to listen to their students’ needs, which make little effort to attract students from different backgrounds and ethnic groups, and which do not keep in touch with the needs of the local labour market will struggle to prosper.”

Whatever the higher education sector thinks about the new ranking it seems likely that systems such as TEF will be taken up by governments as student outcomes and teaching quality become a new priority.

Further reading

The Conversation: TEF: everything you need to know about the new university rankings

The Conversation: Why the TEF could change the way students think about a university education

Higher Education Funding Council for England: What is TEF?

The Daily Telegraph (UK): Top universities slip down rankings under new student-focused system

The Independent: Elite UK universities found to be second-rate in new Government rankings