22 June was a big day with big reaction, both positive and negative. No matter your take on the merits of the Teaching Excellence Framework, prospective students will be coming up with their own opinions.
How much stock prospective students at home or from overseas will actually place on TEF remains to be seen. But, it’s important to begin to understand sooner rather than later your prospective students’ thoughts on your TEF performance, Gold or otherwise, to position your university effectively in response. There’s no crystal ball to give us the answer; universities that take steps now to uncover the ‘TEF effect’ will have more control over the impact it has on their recruitment.
To get to this, universities should start monitoring prospective student sentiment now with the following two questions in mind:
1. To what extent are my prospective students taking our TEF award into account?
Happy or not with your TEF results, how students may consider TEF should dictate how much resource you put against addressing it in your marketing and recruitment. Get a feel for how much students are paying attention to TEF rankings, and how much it’s impacting their attitudes toward the University.
We recently hosted a local Year 12 student in our office through a work experience programme. We asked him what his thoughts were on the TEF and he said ‘it doesn’t matter at all’. He went on to explain that at the end of the day, he feels it doesn’t matter how a university is graded, but it’s student performance that matters. He is still choosing where he applies based on where he thinks he has the grades to receive an offer, location and where his family and friends have made recommendations. TEF won’t factor in at all he said.
This student’s opinion reflects what we’ve been hearing, or rather not hearing, in our conversations with prospective students more broadly. We speak with thousands of prospective home students on behalf of our clients and we’ve heard nothing so far from students regarding TEF. For now, it seems that they are indifferent to it.
If this trend continues, even Gold universities may want to focus messaging and advertising on other qualities.
2. What conclusions are students drawing about the University based on TEF?
The lack of response from students so far may have something to do with the timing. It may just be too late in the cycle for TEF to influence opinion for this intake. Next year may be a whole other story, so it will be wise to plan how you’re going to monitor and respond to your prospective students’ feelings on TEF – and brace for any negative reaction that does pop up.
Chances are, students will have different ideas for what a university’s grade means. Some students looking at a Bronze institution for instance may have concerns over programme quality while others may focus heavily on how it affects the reputation of their degree among employers. For universities that feel they’ve been sold short, it will be important to get to the bottom of the diversity of concerns prospective students have regarding your review. Knowing the ‘how’ behind TEF’s influence on student opinion will enable you to prepare messaging and activities that target the roots of prospective student concerns.
Gold institutions – it will also be useful for you to understand how your prospective students interpret your status so you can double down on the qualities that really resonate with your prospective students in your messaging.
As has always been the case, the more you know about your prospective students, the more effectively you can engage them. While TEF has introduced yet another element of complexity and uncertainty to the sector, universities have the opportunity to steer its impact on their recruitment through active communication with their prospective students. So, talk to your prospective students, track how they’re responding to TEF starting now and you’ll have a clearer and brighter picture for the future.