Higher Education Is Not The Olympics VERSA

Why ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ labels are the most pressing issue of the TEF implications.

It was announced in 2016 that, in accordance with the government’s new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) plans, universities would receive rankings of either ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ or ‘Bronze’. This was a revision from the earlier plans to use the terms, ‘Outstanding’, ‘Excellent’ and ‘Meets Expectations’ on the grounds that such labels wouldn’t distinguish simply enough between the good and the “ok”, and that universities declared as only ‘meeting expectations’ might be given a bad rep – the irony being that this is exactly what awarding “medals” does.

In the Olympics, a Bronze medal is not a consolation “thanks-for-taking-part” kind of prize, but something that requires an enormous amount of skill and effort to achieve. In the context of higher education, however, it will be – as Richard Adams notes – a ‘booby’ prize; the label of what is left over when the Gold and Silver spots have been taken. The ‘Bronze’ label thinly veils exactly what the government were supposedly trying to avoid in ditching ‘Meets Expectations’: the stamp of apparent inadequacy.

The implications of this stamp are intensely worrying. As any undergrad will tell you, university requires work whether you’re at a Russell-Group institution or not. According to various surveys, art students spend more time working than law students (HEPI), and at Sheffield (currently ranked thirteenth in the country) undergrads work “below average” hours (Times Higher Education Analysis). Whilst these findings aren’t necessarily surprising – I’ve spent enough time around people studying degrees in visual art disciplines to know that, unlike finishing a problem sheet or an essay, the work literally never stops – they are also totally arbitrary. The fact is, even at Oxford, the current designate for number one in the world, there are plenty of students who spend more time at Bridge than the Bodleian. And similarly, plenty of students at universities stereotypically branded as ‘less hard-working’ who could put any Merton undergrad to shame. A first class degree – be it from Oxford or any other university – should be appreciated for the insane effort needed to achieve it, and not overshadowed by the umbrella classification of ‘Bronze’ and the subsequent assumption that it might be worth less.

Handing out ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ medals to universities not only downgrades the work of thousands of students but also reinforces the idea that getting into a ‘Gold’ university is winning the game. The problem being, implicit in the notion of there being a winner is that they’ll always be a loser trailing somewhere behind. Since when, though, did getting a degree – even if it isn’t one from a so-called ‘prestigious’ institution – become synonymous with losing a race? Our culture should be one that celebrates the discipline and talent necessary for academic achievement; not one that categorises such achievements on the basis of where they occurred.

A first class degree should not be treated as last place just because of the antiquity of the library in which it was undertaken. Similarly, a place at a ‘Gold’ university should not be treated as first place regardless of the degree title’s outcome.

Label such as the proposed ones diminish students’ individual efforts and, in suggesting that some degrees are simply better than others, further entrench the age-old problems of academic elitism that we should be trying to overcome.