Ranking data – how it is measured
Institutional audits are carried out by teams of academics, who review the quality and standards of each institution's academic activities, with an emphasis on their students and their studies. The auditors use their background knowledge of higher education and expertise to see how well an institution is doing its work, and also check this against the nationally agreed Academic Infrastructure reference points.
The auditors’ objective is to assess the methods an institution uses to maintain standards in its programmes and awards. There are several different types of information it can use. As a first step, they will look at a briefing paper supplied by the institution, in which it gives a mix of facts, figures and analysis about itself.
Next, the team will visit the institution over a period of several days and meet the head of the institution, senior members of staff and student representatives to discuss matters related to the audit at either an institutional or discipline level. Other sources of information, ie about an institution’s awards and policies or minutes of relevant meetings, are also considered. How the institution uses the Academic Infrastructure is also looked into.
Finally, the team will also use trails to examine how well an institution’s internal quality assurance processes work. These may concentrate on particular programmes or groups of programmes, or on a particular theme running through the institution's standards and quality management.
Students are involved in the process either through representatives (ie course
reps or students' union officers) submitting a student-written submission or groups of students meeting the audit team. In addition, it was recently decided that audit teams will in future have student members.
Each team’s findings are then published as a report on the QAA website. This will be made up of a summary, the audit’s findings and the main report. There are no numerical scores, rather the audit team’s judgments as to the level of confidence (expressed as ‘confidence’, ‘limited confidence’ or ‘no confidence’) to be placed on the institution’s management of the quality of its programmes available to students and the standards of its awards.
Comments are also made on what the institution is doing for the quality and standards of its postgraduate research programmes, how it goes about improving the quality of its educational provision, and the accuracy and completeness of the information it publishes.
Finally, the audit report will recommend action to be taken by the institution that it deems to be 'essential', 'advisable' or 'desirable'.
Institutional audits are an ongoing process and institutions are subject to them regularly. Currently, all institutions in England and Northern Ireland are being audited, the process having started in 2007 and due to finish in 2011.
The TQI is a bundle of several quite different types of data: the results of an annual opinion poll of students plus official statistics from several different bodies. Together, they give a wide-ranging general picture of UK institutions and academic subject areas, and in a format that allows direct comparisons.
The opinion poll is, of course, the National Student Survey, which is conducted in all higher education institutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the Quality Assurance Framework for Higher Education (Scotland has its own separate Quality Enhancement Framework, although some Scottish institutions have now chosen to be involved in the National Student Survey).
The Survey is conducted by the pollsters Ipsos MORI (at least until 2010), in collaboration with the National Union of Students, and its purpose is to collect feedback from current students on the quality of the courses they are studying in the interests of public accountability and to help those interested in higher education study make informed choices.
The first Survey was conducted in 2005 and has occurred annually ever since. It is intended to keep it going for the foreseeable future in order to create fuller data and in the interests of more efficient data gathering.
The last National Student Survey, held in 2008, succeeded in getting a 60% response rate and 81% overall satisfaction rate.
The results are available online on the Unistats website .
Looking beyond the ratings
Some national governments insist that they will only give their own scholarships and support to students who go to study in a department rated above a certain grade in the UK RAE. Clearly, this could mean that you may have no choice. But if you do have a choice, be prepared to consider other universities.
Your decision about which postgraduate programme to study and which institution to do it at is an important one, and you will want to get it right, given the commitment of both time and money that postgraduate study will represent.
In the latest (2008) RAE, each subject discipline (in one of the 67 units of assessment (UOA) in the RAE) in each university undertaking research in that field that had made a submission to the RAE was graded on a five-point scale, taking into account research outputs, research environment and indicators of esteem, as follows:
- 4* = research that is world leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
- 3* = research that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour, but which, nonetheless, falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
- 2* = research that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
- 1* = research area that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
- Unclassified = research that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work or is work that does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of the RAE.
These are then presented as a ‘quality profile’ for each higher-education institution that had made a submission in each UOA, which indicates the proportion of the research that meets each of four quality levels or is unclassified, instead of a single-point rating, as was the case in 2001. The thinking is that this will give reduce the averaging effect of a single-point score, allowing the assessors a finer degree of judgment, leading to a clearer picture of the breadth of quality of each submission and helping the funding bodies better identify pockets of high-quality research, wherever these are located.
You can find all the latest 2008 RAE research ratings by looking at the RAE website .
UK Research Councils
The Research Council websites give details of notable research and achievements funded by them plus details of funding opportunities and advice.