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Universities that are rated highly on Facebook and other online review sites tend to do better in formal measures of learning and teaching, new research suggests.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has compared publicly available online feedback through Facebook, WhatUni and StudentCrowd with more mainstream measures including the National Student Survey (NSS), the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), and external reviews of the quality of education provision.

The Wisdom of Students: Monitoring Quality through Student Reviews analysed more than 210,000 online reviews. It found that in general, online feedback about UK universities and colleges is positive. Researchers assigned institutions “collective-judgement” score out of five based on the combined social media ratings. The average score was 4.18 stars, aligning with the generally high student satisfaction scores in the NSS.

A similar trend was found with the outcomes of the TEF. The average star ratings online were generally highest for providers with a Gold TEF award, followed by Silver-rated providers, and lowest for Bronze, although there were a number of outliers that significantly bucked the general trend.

The report said that the collective-judgement score has a positive association with, and can be an effective predictor of, the outcome of other quality measures. As a result, it could be useful both as a quality improvement tool for providers and as a risk prioritisation tool for oversight bodies, it concluded.

Alex Griffiths, from the London School of Economics' Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation and one of the report's authors, said: “The near real-time, automated monitoring of online feedback provides exciting, student-led insights into quality. What’s more it offers universities, colleges and the bodies that oversee them, the ability to quickly identify and act on risks to quality, resulting in a positive student experience.”

The findings mirror Dr Griffiths' work in the healthcare sector, which also found social media ratings were predictors of a healthcare provider's Care Quality Commission assessment outcomes.

Will Naylor, Director of Colleges and Alternative Providers at QAA, said: “Quality checks in higher education will always need the judgement of independent experts. However, this report reminds us to keep an open mind particularly when it comes to understanding what students think of teaching, facilities and other services.”

To test if this pattern holds over time, QAA will carry out a pilot with ten higher education providers in the autumn.

“Our pilot will explore the potential to take a new approach to identifying which universities and colleges are most likely to thrive, and which might be a riskier prospect,” said Naylor.

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