The New TEF Awards – Part 2: Drilling down into marketing behaviours of individual institutions

Following on from last week’s blog sharing first impressions of the new TEF awards here we go into more detail in three specific areas:

  • The varying approaches to publishing
  • Building awareness through organic search and
  • Building awareness through social media

The varying approaches to publishing

Our research indicates the vast majority of the 59 institutions awarded the TEF “Gold” rating in 2017 published new content to their website to build awareness of their achievement. Many, such as The University of Kent and Edge Hill University, published news or blog articles, while others, such as The University of Huddersfield and De Montford University, added dedicated pages to their “About Us” section in addition to news stories. City College Plymouth was the only institution that did not publish any new content relating to their TEF Gold award.

Gold rated institutions gained higher levels of engagement on social media when publishing news or blog posts. This is likely due to the “real-time” nature of social media, meaning that current, recently dated news or blog content will attract more clicks from social browsers than an apparently static, undated page.

On the other hand, where a dedicated “About” page was published alongside a blog or news story, our research shows that Google would frequently rank the dedicated page ahead of the news story in general searches words relating to the university and TEF.

Of course, where no content was published, no awareness was built through either social media or Google rankings.

Building Awareness Through Organic Search

We reviewed the rankings of each Gold-awarded institutions’ websites for a range of related keywords including “TEF”, “teaching excellence framework” and “TEF Gold”. These keywords had received a significant surge in demand in June, amounting to tens of thousands of searches in total. The increases in searches for these keywords provided an excellent opportunity for Gold rated institutions to be found amongst the results, and build awareness of their award, by creating engaging, keyword-focused content.

As digital marketing experts, Altain Education understand that there are myriad ways that Google judges a page when deciding where to place it in its organic search engine rankings for relevant keywords. Among the most important of these, however, is the use of target keywords within the titles, headers and copy on the page itself.

The vast majority of Gold rated institutions did indeed create new content to raise awareness of their award. However, it is evident that not all of this content was created with the same care to include relevant keywords.

Those articles that did include the words “TEF”, “Teaching”, “Excellence”, “Framework” and / or “Gold” within their content and, crucially, the title of the page were vastly more likely to rank ahead of the websites of other institutions for searches that included these words.

Building awareness through social media

Our research revealed a vast difference in the level of social media engagement earned by each Gold rated institution upon sharing the news of their award. Of course, institutions with a larger “following” on social media started at an advantage here, there appears to also have been other factors at play.

For example, Edge Hill University has 85% fewer followers on Facebook than The University of Birmingham, but upon announcing their respective awards, Edge Hill received several times more social engagement in the form of likes, comments or shares. In this case, the significant difference could be that Edge Hill pinned their post to the top of their Facebook feed, where it remains at the time of writing. This has allowed the post to continue to attract engagement and build awareness of the award over a month after original publication.

Some institutions also failed to take advantage of the opportunities made available by the wider range of social channels, preferring to focus on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In many of the cases in our study, greater engagement was achieved by the sharing of content on LinkedIn than on Twitter, indicating that digital managers in higher education institutions are neglecting this channel.

We also noticed that some institutions were failing to share their content efficiently. For example, many institutions informed their Facebook followers of their Gold award by posting images, instead of links to their content, limiting the engagement that might otherwise have been made.

See our next blog for key takeaways and some suggestions

University admissions and exams reform, two sides of the same coin?

The following is a transcript of a presentation that I gave at the recent Westminster Higher Education Forum on the possible impact of exams reform on admissions and implications for widening participation.


Good morning

I suspect that Michael Gove might actually be quite pleased with the ‘O level’ referencing in this cartoon. However I like its understatedness reminding us of the possible human dimensions to education refoms and in particular major exam reforms coming to a head this summer. Anyway, I’m the Managing Director of Altain Education and we are a strategic agency helping people from exams and assessment organisations with their customer and commercial stuff.  We do work with universities but again, typically ‘schoolside’

Our aim today is to explore with you, the possible impact of exams reforms, in relation to admissions and particularly in relation to widening participation.

Our approach is to:

  • Firstly, to explore the connection between exams and admissions
  • Second, the nature and possible significance of the reforms
  • Then, what might be done, in the short term
  • Finally, to wrap up with thoughts on the longer term

In the education committee’s review of the exams system, the most common complaint was of an exams dog wagging the education tail. The question here is whether exams reforms are perhaps unwittingly wagging the Social mobility tail too?

So – what about the connection between exams and admissions?

Exams and admissions; Two sides of the same coin?

There is perhaps no better illustration of the close connection between exams and admissions that the annual results day ritual.  In effect, ‘Two sides of the same coin. This then, extends to the chain of decisions and activities leading up to the results. Then beyond as we move into clearing and exam appeals.

Underlying this appears to be a narrative ‘blueprint’ for education success and arguably success in life – Work hard, get your qualifications, go to university, get a job!  A narrative with significant motive power, but possibly under pressure – a theme we will return to in a moment.

In principle, this is an equitable situation as the means of getting onto the pathway, ie largely via public exams, are open to all.

There are possible question-marks over equality of opportunities for attainment and progress.  Perhaps also a question mark over open accessibility of all university offers.

However these problems will be endemic in the system ‘as is’. Our interest here is the possibility that the reforms bring something new.

Exams reform: An equitable ‘fiasco’

These are major reforms and admissions and history tell us that the initial results period can be particularly challenging.

Some have suggested curriculum 2000 as a comparison, for example, which we’ve reflected in this two by two box so beloved of us consultants. AS changes were centre stage in 2000 as they are this time and then culminated in a reported grading ‘fiasco’, with young people missing out on university places and high level resignations.

Roll forward to the forthcoming exams and we might hope that lessons had been learned. However, if we take the example of AS and Maths in particular,  we should note that leading universities were against the changes, as their evidence was that availability of AS enabled some young people to discover Maths ability not apparent at GCSE. Perhaps more significant is the totality of changes –

  • AS decoupling, disadvantaging students that ‘discovered’ maths capability later in the education cycle
  • GCSE Maths, toughened up with a change from alpha to numeric with 9 an new top grade above the existing A* for example and a ‘good pass’ a grade 5 which equates to the top of a grade C and above
  • A levels have been tightened up
  • A return of Entrance exams/interviews for some universities

Individual assessments may be the same for all but for some there is a potential for a ‘compounding’ factor.

In addition to this, is the challenging scenario reportedly faced by some schools on funding and teacher recruitment, leading to a shortage of specialist teachers eg physics and maths, a narrowing of A level curricula, possibility of reduction of supporting resources such as textbooks.

Perhaps under-reported, is the possible knock-on impact of ‘bandwidth’ issues at KS 4/5 on KS3 student progression – labelled the ‘wasted years’ by Ofsted.

In summary, if you are projecting some distortion in relation to students from disadvantaged backgrounds that would seem reasonable.

So, what might be done?

What might be done?

Others have commented on possibilities for the admissions system and ‘outreach plans’

Specifically, on school side intervention, we observe three main strategies –

  • Going around the schools and directly targeting the student eg social media events
  • Adaption of admissions policies to mitigate uncertainty eg unconditional offers
  • Direct engagement with the schools eg Supporting attainment with tuition; or working with schools to judge ‘potential’ where exams results may not be representative

The ‘Sweet spot’ with most interventions most likely to be around ‘Attainment’

Schoolside, ‘What works?’

If you are minded to do more school- side, particularly in the area of attainment, it might be helpful to be aware of the ‘what works’ movement emphasising ‘evidence based’ policy and practice. This ranges from guidance on research based strategies, to driving attainment, through formative assessment, to assessment systems that might be helpful for local evaluation and experimenting with interventions.

So, more assessment, but very different in purpose and approach from high stakes exams.

With two options – leverage it, or be part of growing it.

Wrap up

Finally, to wrap up I wanted to return to the theme of there being an underlying narrative as a motive force (and one possibly on the wane) that drives young people toward university. In effect, a value proposition and value chain and quite a bit more. As this cartoon reminds us, this is a time in which this ‘value’ might be under question.

One of the possible side effects of the reforms is that bandwidth issues mean that we lose sight of the need to sustain the narrative and more particularly the need to refresh and perhaps re-architect offers and the system

In April, a new motive force will be unleashed, a £3 bn apprenticeship levy.

It would be shame if young people from disadvantaged background missed out on a lifechanging university experience instead because exam reform meant eyes were taken off the ball.

Thank you


NEWS: Altain to speak at the forthcoming Westminster Higher Education Forum event on securing University admissions targets in face of exams reforms.

Geoff Hurst, Managing Director, of Altain education will be presenting and contributing to a panel discussion on exams reform and university admissions targets as part of conference on next steps for widening participation policy and practice

A summary of the programme and other speakers are below with full details here.We hope to see you there.

With the Government having set two widening participation targets – doubling the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from 14% to 28%, and to increase by 20% the numbers of students from BME backgrounds, both by 2020 – this seminar will be a timely opportunity to assess existing best practice, remaining practical challenges and next steps for policy in order achieve these goals.

The seminar also comes as HEFCE prepares to oversee the launch of a new Collaborative Outreach Program which will see consortia of universities and other groups leading efforts to realise the Government’s targets and with considerable change planned to post-16 vocational qualifications.

Delegates will discuss the impact of the reform of post-16 technical education and the opportunities presented by Degree Apprenticeships for widening participation, the distinct challenges for improving participation among students who are mature, BAME, disabled or from disadvantaged communities, and evidence of what works in outreach and how lessons might be drawn from this to inform policy and practice more widely.

The role of the admissions system in widening participation will also be discussed, including the proposal for UCAS applications to be ‘name-blind’ which is currently being trialled and consulted upon, as well the likely impact of new requirements for universities to report admissions data, the growing use of contextual data to inform offers and the merits of wider reform of the system such as moving to a Post-Qualification Application model.