It’s time to ditch stale perceptions of university hierarchies

Catherine O’Connell responds to a recent study that identified four ‘tiers’ of universities in the UK

December 3, 2015

In her recently published study reported by Times Higher Education, Vikki Boliver, senior lecturer in sociology at Durham University, draws attention to what she says are four “distinctive clusters of higher and lower status universities in the UK”. 

Undoubtedly, in this study, Dr Boliver seeks to draw attention to the disparity in resources across the sector. Nevertheless, it and the way it has been reported emphasise a narrow definition of excellence that reinforces the supposed hierarchies that are discussed. 

Before considering the interpretation of the analysis, a few points should be noted in relation to the data used in the research.  The analysis draws on a limited set of metrics from the “early 2010s” relating to student satisfaction measures in a pre-Browne Review era.  Furthermore, the metrics used to define teaching quality are not fully specified. 

In this way the study falls prey to the criticisms frequently levelled at rankings organisations for lack of transparency and the tendency to conflate metrics that measure both inputs and outputs in questionable ways. 

By looking at groupings at an institutional level, it misses strengths in particular disciplines at individual institutions and focuses on size and even historical advantage as the basis for the "status" by using, for example, research income as a proxy measure.

Universities with large departments in science, medicine and engineering are thus advantaged over niche institutions. 

In its focus on 2008 research assessment exercise data, the study is not able to take account of more current data from the 2014 research excellence framework, which indicate that universities are showing increased differentiation in their performance in terms of research impact and research intensity (areas in which several former colleges and post-1992 institutions have been doing well). 

If the analysis had looked at 2014 REF data, it would have shown that that some institutions submitted a very small proportion of their academic staff in order to increase the percentage of research rated as 3* or 4*.  Other institutions that submitted a large proportion of staff, with a consequent impact on the proportion rated as 3* or 4*, are thus disadvantaged. 

In other studies, Dr Boliver draws attention to the social inequalities in access to higher education. However, the data constituted for this study equate widening participation with low status. The socio-economic status measure within the study draws on completion rates, Ucas tariffs and degree classification as the basis for status. 

The distribution of institutional “widening participation” funding would provide an alternative perspective and reflect the differentiation in expertise across the sector in serving diverse student profiles. 

An analysis in 2011 (“Missions on the move: University systems in England, New York State and

California”, published in Higher Education Management and Policy) demonstrated that universities represented by Million+ and University Alliance mission groups earned more than 70 per cent of the widening participation funds provided by central government, with members of the Russell Group and the (now defunct) 1994 Group together earning less than 15 per cent of these funds.

A study such as this is able to give only a static snapshot of institutional performance across a narrow set of measures.  It gives no perspective on the differing trajectories of institutional performance or increasing mission differentiation that has been observed in recent research studies, but instead serves to re-enforce existing perceptions of institutional status. 

More recent analysis of research intensity plus research quality (as reported in THE) shows rapid changes within the sector, with former colleges and post-1992 institutions such as the University of Roehampton, Liverpool Hope University and Plymouth University performing above the median point, and 60 of the universities identified by Dr Boliver’s study as less endangered falling below the median point on this measure.

The study draws a conclusion that “it is these universities (in what Dr Boliver classifies as “Tier four”) whose continued existence is most imperilled by the growing privatisation and marketisation of the UK higher education system”.  There is no evidence put forward to lead to that conclusion. 

In fact, Tier 4 includes not only three or four of the universities with the largest percentage revenue surpluses in the country over the past few years, but also the THE University of the Year in 2014, Edge Hill University

As an illustration, Liverpool Hope University has returned revenue surpluses of over 8 per cent year on year through all these market changes, at the same time it strengthened its balance sheet.

Alongside that strong financial performance, staff-to-student ratios have reduced to 1:16 with 55 per cent of staff submitted to the REF 2014. 

In his recent report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, The Metric Tide, James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, and his colleagues, call for a more nuanced approach to the use of metrics within the higher education community, the use of context-specific principles that reflect the purposes such indicators serve, and the identification and use of a wider range of indicators of equality and diversity. 

An alternative interpretation based on Dr Boliver’s analysis could have emphasised the consistent levels of teaching quality and student satisfaction that are being achieved despite the uneven distribution in resources in the sector and the strong performance of universities with widening access mission drivers. 

Diversity within the UK higher education is one of its strongest points, a policy priority increasingly emphasised by international analysts such as Ellen Hazelkorn and Philip Altbach. 

In a context of heightened institutional competition arising from marketisation, government and the media can either amplify or seek to mediate these forces of vertical differentiation through emphasis and recognition of a broader range of measures of university performance that reflect different missions. This differentiation, combined with recent government comment on the need for greater inclusivity in research, may provide a counterpoint to the competitive paradigm. 


Catherine O’Connell is associate director of the Centre for Education and Policy Analysis at Liverpool Hope University.

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