Top UK Universities Perform Poorly in Controversial New Ranking

Top UK Universities Perform Poorly in Controversial New Ranking

Craig OCallaghan

Updated November 30, 2023 Updated November 30

As if there weren’t enough university rankings out there already, the UK government has introduced another one and several top UK universities have performed poorly.

LSE, Southampton and Liverpool were handed the lowest possible ranking of bronze in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), despite all being members of the elite Russell Group of universities. By contrast, many universities which rarely feature near the top of rankings were awarded gold, including Bangor, Buckingham, Coventry and Portsmouth.

TEF has been introduced by the Conservative government as a way of assessing the quality of teaching at different universities. In the future, the plan is that a university’s TEF rating will determine how much they can charge students in tuition fees. Only universities rated gold and silver will be allowed to increase fees in line with inflation.

So, how is TEF calculated then?

Universities included in the Teaching Excellence Framework were assessed by an independent panel of academics, students and employers. Mainly, this assessment is based upon the following data:

  • National Student Survey responses about “the teaching on my course”, “assessment and feedback”, and “academic support”
  • Student retention figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency
  • Proportion of former students in employment and further study

Universities were also required to submit a written report which argued how they met the various criteria. This could be used to highlight mitigating factors or other information not captured not by the collected data mentioned above.

Which universities have done well?

As mentioned above, there are some surprising universities which have been awarded gold, alongside the familiar heavyweights like Oxford and Cambridge. Here’s a complete breakdown of the universities rated gold in this year’s Teaching Excellence Framework, with their position in the QS World University Rankings® 2018 alongside it for comparison, along with selected universities ranked silver and bronze.


QS World University Rankings® 2018

Arts University Bournemouth


Aston University


Bangor University


University of Bath


University of Birmingham


Bishop Grosseteste University


University of Buckingham


University of Cambridge


Conservatoire for Dance and Drama


Coventry University


De Montfort University


University of Derby


University of Dundee


Edge Hill University


University of Essex


University of Exeter


Falmouth University


Harper Adams University


University of Huddersfield


Imperial College London


Keele University


University of Kent


Lancaster University


University of Law


University of Leeds


University of Lincoln


Liverpool Hope University


Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts


Loughborough University


Newcastle University


University of Northampton


Norwich University of the Arts


University of Nottingham


Nottingham Trent University


University of Oxford


University of Portsmouth


Robert Gordon University


Rose Bruford College


Royal Academy of Music


Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London


Royal College of Music


Royal Northern College of Music


Royal Veterinary College


University of St Andrews


University of Surrey


N/A indicates the university is not included in the QS ranking.

Silver: Universities rated silver include King’s College London, University of Bristol, University of York, University of Manchester, and University of Warwick.

Bronze: Universities rated bronze include LSE, University of Southampton, University of Liverpool, and Goldsmiths.

Wow, that list of gold universities is really different to the QS ranking!

21 of the 46 universities rated gold by the Teaching Excellence Framework don’t feature at all in the QS university rankings. So, who should you believe? This wild disparity largely comes from the different criteria being used to assess universities. While TEF has little interest in a university’s research impact, one of the six criteria used by QS is the number of research citations produced per faculty member at each university. QS also places greater emphasis on the reputation a university has among academics and employers, while TEF is more concerned with feedback from students. Read more about the QS ranking methodology here.

Surely, it’s a good thing to base ratings for universities off what current students think of their teaching?

Well, here’s where the problems with TEF actually start to emerge. While using the opinions of current students seems like a sound way to assess whether teaching quality is high or low, it doesn’t exactly work in practice as it risks rewarding universities and courses where the teaching is less demanding or stressful. There’s also the fact that each student has very little to compare their university experience to – making it difficult for them to objectively tell how good their tutors are.

However, the biggest issue TEF has faced is that many students haven’t welcomed the idea that their positive feedback could give their university permission to increase tuition fees in the future. As a result, many universities had students boycotting the National Student Survey in protest. It’s not clear how the government plans to solve this problem in the future, but it’s likely to cause some unusual results until they do.

So, should I pay any attention to TEF when choosing a university?

The National Union of Students, which organized the boycott of the National Student Survey, have dismissed the TEF as “another meaningless university ranking system which no one asked for” but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful when choosing a university.

Our recommendation for now would be to read more into a university being rated gold than a traditionally strong university being rated bronze. While the former suggests a university not only provides good-quality teaching but also produces satisfied students, the latter bronze ratings could be impacted by a variety of factors. Even one of the people behind the TEF has said prospective students should only use it in combination with other rankings and information. Just because a university isn’t rated gold, doesn’t mean it’s not a top UK university.

This article was originally published in June 2017 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

As editor of, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.

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