Guide to Choosing UK Universities - Quality Assurance

Learn more about quality assurance for UK universities.
guide to choosing uk universities - quality assurance

Our guide to choosing UK universities shows you how to pick a UK university based on quality assurance ratings and academic standards.  We go into detail about the Quality Assurance Agency, Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Table of Contents

Quality Assurance Agency for UK Universities

Higher education institutions in the UK are responsible for managing its own academic standards. As a result, the quality of education can vary greatly from school to school. The Quality Assurance Agency, or the QAA, serves as an external body that oversees quality assurance for UK higher education.

The QAA’s primary purpose is to safeguard the public interest by ensuring adequate quality in UK higher education. This is achieved by conducting audits and reviews of universities and colleges. The QAA is also responsible for setting clear academic standards through the Academic Infrastructure. Further, it advises the government on degree-awarding powers and it offers advice on academic standards and quality. The QAA may also consult for quality assurance for higher education at the international level.

UK higher education institutions are required to submit a self-evaluation document to QAA. Each institution will then be thoroughly examined through a peer-review process and via the review process which is carried out by trained QAA team members who are academicians.

Reports on individual universities are accessible by all and they may be found on QAA’s website.

QAA Code of Practice

The QAA has a guideline that outlines good practices for academic quality management in higher education. The following are some aspects of management that are important in maintaining academic quality:

  1. Postgraduate research programmes
  2. Collaborative provision
  3. Students with disabilities
  4. External examining
  5. Academic appeals and student complaints on academic matters
  6. Assessment of students
  7. Programme approval, monitoring and review
  8. Career education, information and guidance
  9. Placement learning
  10. Student recruitment and admissions
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Teaching Excellence Framework

The Teaching Excellence Framework is known as the TEF and it assigns UK universities ratings for excellent teaching. TEF is a voluntary exercise and it is intended to aid students in choosing universities based on its standards and quality of teaching. 

A number of top-ranked universities do not have a TEF rating as these universities have opted to not be part of this assessment. Regardless of that, a university’s TEF rating is one of many important indicators that you should be paying attention to, especially for participating universities in England.

TEF Ratings

TEF rates participating universities on a linear four-point scale as follows:

  • Provisional – The participating university does not have sufficient data to be assessed
  • Bronze – meets national quality requirements for UK higher education in teaching and student outcomes
  • Silver – consistently meets and exceeds national quality requirements for UK higher education in teaching and student outcomes
  • Gold – consistently meets and exceeds national quality requirements for UK higher education in teaching and student outcomes; delivers the highest quality of teaching in the UK

Universities rated N/A or unavailable have opted to not participate in TEF. However, these universities may have been rated by other bodies that are equivalent to TEF.

Research Excellence Framework

Where the TEF is focused on excellence in teaching, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is focused on the quality of research. The larger aim of the REF is to ensure that UK research can be world-class and encompasses the full academic spectrum. The objectives of the REF are the following:

  • Provide accountability for investment in research through evidence
  • Provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks for use by the sector
  • Consult on the allocation of research funds

REF assessments are conducted through expert panels which consists of senior academics, international members, and research users. There are 34 subject-based units of assessment for REF reviews which fall under the guidance of four main panels. Research submitted for review is assessed based on the quality of output (such as publications and exhibitions), impact beyond academia, and the academic environment that supports the research.

REF Ratings and League Table

REF ratings are used in two major league tables – The Guardian and THE World University Rankings. Both of these league tables have used data produced by the REF rankings since 2014 and put together a multidisciplinary ranking league table.

The league table below is made up of data compiled in The Guardian and THE World University Ranking league tables as well as data published by REF. The following table displays the top ten UK universities in the following categories:

  • Research power – a measurement of the volume of quality research
  • Research quality – overall or average quality of research
  • Highest percentage of world-leading research produced by the university
RankingResearch PowerResearch QualityWorld-Leading Research
1University College LondonImperial College LondonLondon School of Economics
2University of OxfordLondon School of EconomicsUniversity of Oxford
3University of CambridgeUniversity of OxfordUniversity of Cambridge
4University of EdinburghUniversity of CambridgeImperial College London
5University of ManchesterCardiff UniversityUniversity College London
6King's College LondonKing's College LondonCardiff University
7Imperial College LondonUniversity College LondonKing's College London
8University of NottinghamUniversity of WarwickUniversity of Edinburgh
9University of BristolUniversity of EdinburghUniversity of Warwick
10University of LeedsUniversity of BristolUniversity of Bristol

Choosing a University - Prioritising Academic Quality

While university rankings are very helpful, league tables may prioritise certain metrics over others that may not be as important for you. Doing your own research is key in finding the right UK university for you.

Now that we understand these quality frameworks in UK higher education better, let’s look at how we can use these to help choose a UK university that offers quality teaching.

QAA reports will be a great place to start your research – if you’d like to know more about your university of choice, looking into the university’s most recent QAA report may highlight its strengths and inform you about any potential weaknesses of the university.

The TEF rating, where they are available, is good as a rough guide to a university’s overall reputation in teaching quality. While this will vary from course to course, a Gold TEF rating may indicate that the university has nurtured a good, positive culture centred around teaching and learning.

The REF rating would be of special interest for students who wish to continue their studies and pursue a career in academia. A university’s research output and quality speak for the organisation’s ability to attract the best academics, good support for research, ample funds and resources invested in research, and a supportive environment for research.

These three frameworks – the QAA, TEF, and REF – all provide some enlightenment into a university’s inner workings. These metrics are focused on the university’s ability to deliver quality teaching and produce good research rather than outcomes and student satisfaction, which we will look at in upcoming articles on the same subject. 

In conclusion, be sure to take into account these existing frameworks which exist to make the research process easier for prospective students like you! The quality of teaching that you receive in a university will determine your learning experience as you spend your next three to four years studying abroad – it’s best to make the most of it by making the right decision before you submit your UCAS application.

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