When newspapers compile league tables of universities,
are they performing a public service to students
and their parents, or are they damaging the
reputation and fabric of higher education?
Quite possibly both, according to speakers
at a Universities UK conference in London.
Francis Beckett reports.
tables provide fun, humiliation, information,
and benchmarking but their current
presentation and compilation are flawed, said
University Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Wilson
(left), introducing the conference
with a constructive critique.
a universitys standards can be maintained
from year to year, its place in the league
tables can shift wildly. Even in the same
year, it can be much higher in one table than
in another. One of the problems, Sir Alan
said, is that by attempting to rank institutions
by a combination of many different factors,
from library expenditure to numbers of firsts,
the final figures have little real significance,
like trying to combine apples and oranges.
saw three faults with the criteria used by
the main British newspaper league tables.
First, most league table generators
divide by size. This penalises large
institutions like Leeds. You could take
two small universities in the top 10 and find
that they could both be included, grade for
grade, within the University of Leeds
which neatly finds itself ranked about
20 in league tables.
they combine all sorts of different indicators.
Inevitably you are weighting them, explicitly
or implicitly, he said. This makes league
tables volatile and unpredictable. Some
universities are ranked anything from 10 to
40. This, contrary to appearances, did
not necessarily indicate wildly fluctuating
standards at these institutions.
third problem with league tables was their
effect. The desire to do well in them, said
Sir Alan, generates incentives for perverse
behaviour. For example, the government
may want to widen participation, and a university
like Leeds aims to do just that but
if it succeeds, it could easily be lowering
its place in the league tables. Or a university
may have an overstocked, inefficient and expensive
library. This will be rewarded by league tables,
which judge only the spending on the library.
what should be done? Two main league table
compilers Donald MacLeod of the Guardian,
and Times Higher Education Supplement editor
John OLeary were there to defend
their work. Both insisted that league tables
were likely to stay, and were intended as
an aide to students and their parents. They
are not published for the benefit of universities.
MacLeod put it brutally: I know who
the audience is, and it isnt you. Its
students and parents.
was concerned that their work generated incentives
for perverse behaviour. OLeary said
he was not concerned about the widening participation
agenda, or any other policy that happened
from time to time to be adopted by government,
but about what parents and students wanted
to know. We want to put together indicators
of excellence. MacLeod said: If
the library is overstocked, that is fine from
the students point of view.
the book efficient libraries like the
Brotherton (below) aren't always rewarded
by league tables, which focus only on expenditure
have responded to criticism of their methodology
and criteria, they said. The Times no longer
includes the amount of student accommodation
as a criterion. It has two weighted criteria
teaching assessment (weighted 2.5)
and research assessment (weighted 1.5.) Other
criteria include entry qualifications, which
is controversial what does it show
about a university that it demands high A-level
scores from potential students?
in any case, are the tables much use to students
and parents? Comprehensive school head teacher
Kate Griffin, president of the Secondary Heads
Association, said: League tables do
not help us much. We need to know the quality
of teaching, the quality of support, and the
drop-out rate. We need it not just institution
by institution, but course by course.
They do not give the information that schools
need. The only thing she could say in their
defence was that they are not as damaging
as league tables for schools, which have
had devastating effects.
they dont help schools, are league tables
much use to employers? Not a great deal, according
to Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association
of Graduate Recruiters. Three quarters of
employers target specific institutions to
recruit from, but this percentage is reducing
each year. And when employers do target specific
places, they rarely choose these places by
referring to league tables.
dislike them, ignore them, resent them, there
is no sign that the four newspaper league
tables of British universities produced
by the Times, Guardian, Sunday Times
and Financial Times are about
to disappear, because they help sell newspapers.
People buy the newspaper for the league table,
and the marketing people calculate that if
they like the rest of the paper, they will
go on buying it. Its a straight commercial
it right sixth-formers need course-specific
information, available at events like the
Festival of Languages (right)
no one was arguing that it would be a good
thing if they did disappear. Sir Alan himself
told the conference: Im not against
league tables. They will always be with us.
But we have to stop pretending that they are,
in their current form, objective or scientific.
needed are league tables run on better-thought
out criteria, ideally, using the methods of
cost-benefit analysis to put a value on different
elements of higher education. It is
unlikely that we could define an ideal league
table, but we could achieve several league
tables accurately representing different attributes,
the future, newspapers are now facing the
challenge of compiling league tables without
teaching assessments. Tables aimed at students
and parents can do without research assessments,
but take away teaching assessments and their
use becomes limited. The Guardian says
it will continue to include the scores
however out of date but reduce their
weight and phase them out.
alternative, floated by Sir Alan, is to use
peer reviews, asking academics for a view
on the teaching in other departments, but
theres often a good deal of resistance
from academics to the idea of passing judgement
on teaching and learning activities carried
out by colleagues in other institutions
although they would feel more comfortable
with research especially for a league
table exercise which many academics consider