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How much do Teaching Excellence awards and badges matter?

by Selena Bolingbroke | Jul 9, 2018 | Strategy & Transformation

Are teaching excellence awards and badges just for the feel-good factor, or are they vital information for students to hone their consumer persona and ‘wise choice’ skills?

As we approach another glittering award ceremony, it gives me cause to pause and think about what ‘excellence’ means.

There are now so many different indicators of ‘excellence’ that a whirlwind of quality badge confusion can easily whip up gusts of cynicism, rather than leave recipients basking in the faint glow of praise.

From the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), league tables and sponsored award ceremonies (almost now industries themselves?) to the myriad of ‘Which University?’, ‘What Uni?’, and ‘Complete University’ websites, there is no shortage of information out there proclaiming and celebrating different types of ‘excellence’.

But what does it mean to the student?

Supposedly now put ‘at the heart of the system’, Government policy has created a ranking system in TEF for students to make wise choices about where their large indebted tuition fees will be spent. I know TEF is in its infancy, and we should all be quaking in our boots at the prospect of its subject-level TEF sibling joining the excellence badge party, but I am long-in-the-tooth and cynical enough to believe that this will have as much impact on student consciousness as Unistats (that last great hope for the informed student consumer).

Indeed, a Hot Courses whisperer confided to me that analytics of their webpages suggested that some of those Gold-medalled institutions were seeing a decline in page visits, and some of the Bronze-medalled ‘shamed’ institutions were seeing an uplift.

I did a quick kitchen cabinet poll this week (there are nearly always enough young people hanging around my house to make this a valid sample), and asked what kinds of information the gathered assembly had taken into account when reviewing their post-18 options. Recommendation from a friend was number one, followed by location and course facilities.

When probed, all of them concentrated most of their time on looking at course-level information, and only looked at institutional-level information as a final action (not even giving it the status of a final sway factor). Not one of them had consulted a league table and I had to physically point to the award proclamations and medalled images in various university website banner heads for them to realise there were such things.

The recommendation of a friend, teacher or family member is as old as the hills in terms of university choice – but whereas 30 years ago that was still a fairly elite group, the massification of higher education means that there are a lot more views and opinions out there.

Anyone who has worked closely with their admisisions team on data analytics will have experienced school cluster oddities that stand out in recruitment patterns – and not because of neat feeder chains and outreach activity, or travel to study patterns. These are clusters that often rest on a former student who has now entered the teaching or careers profession, who has sent their alma mater a steady stream of students ever since.

I recall my own comp in the West Midlands having a steady stream of students hitting the bright lights of the East Midlands in the form of Derby College of Higher Education (as was Derby University back in the day) mainly because Jimmy’s brother’s girlfriend’s sister’s best friend had a cracking time hanging out at the Assembly Rooms, got a 2:1 to boot and a job in the M&S management stream.

Yet recommendations are probably still one of the most reliable indicators of ‘excellence’ or ‘quality’ in adjusted contextual terms, given the subjective nature of both concepts. Your friends know what will ring your bells. Indeed, Amazon has built a whole quality assurance model around customer recommendations.

So does that mean that the badges and award ceremonies are something that we should sneer at and dismiss?

Not necessarily. I’ve paid the submission fees, sweated over the application process and entered teams and pieces of project work myself that we have been extraordinarily proud of and there is no doubt that recognition – from within or outside the sector – does give the staff (and sometimes students) involved that warm glow and renewed motivation we all crave from time to time.

But more than that, Universities have a wider audience than students to appeal to. These external badges, accolades, league tables and honours of distinction can and do serve to assure those other stakeholders we work with that we are truly excellent, high quality, Gold-standard service providers.

Selena Bolingbroke is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin.