Snobbery towards modern universities is unfair and outdated

Long-held beliefs about the UK’s hierarchy of institutions do not stand up to scrutiny, and hold back progress, argues Edward Peck

February 3, 2018

I am not the first to see the UK’s outdated hierarchy of higher educational institutions as anachronistic.

As Sir Howard Newby, then chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said to the Education and Skills Select Committee in 2003: “The English do have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy.

“It is very regrettable that we cannot celebrate diversity rather than constantly turning it into hierarchy,” added Sir Howard.

Robert Halfon, who is currently chair of that same select committee, recently made a similar point in The Times when he compared the inconsistent performance of members of the Russell Group to that of Nottingham Trent University and asked: “Why isn’t it seen as elitist and prestigious as well?”

NTU describes itself as a teaching-intensive. The combination of an intake encompassing all sections of society in roughly equal proportions, a rigorous approach to academic support based on the most advanced student analytics in the sector, and an exemplary graduate employment rate has led to a range of accolades: TEF gold; The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide Modern University of the Year; and Times Higher Education’s University of the Year. What more would we have to do to be seen as prestigious when it comes to teaching, learning and the student experience?

The UK’s current “prestigious” and “elite” universities are largely defined by the age of their founding college and their breadth and depth of research. Let us consider NTU against these criteria.

Taking longevity first, there is undoubtedly something to be said for the benefits of pedigree when it comes to higher education. NTU celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. Our founding college opened its doors in 1843. We believe that we are the longest-established provider of post-school education in the East Midlands. We are probably among the 25 oldest in the country. Yes, this modern university also has a history and a heritage. However, neither this tradition nor the quality of our education seems enough to propel us into this grouping of the perceived “elite”. It is more proof, if more proof were needed, that the hierarchy is as misconceived as it is outdated.

Moving on to research, those universities that describe themselves as research intensive have to be respected for the quality and the quantity of their activities in this field. NTU describes itself as teaching-intensive and research-active. In niche areas – in particular where they connect with characteristics of the private and public sectors in our region – NTU undertakes research that bears comparison with that being undertaken anywhere in the world. The difference between NTU and members of the Russell Group when it comes to research is one of scale. Perhaps a more accurate description of many of these so-called “elite” or “prestigious” universities would be research-intensive and teaching-active. 

Many politicians besides Robert Halfon recognise the problems with the current characterisation. Kenneth Clarke, in his memoirs, notes that by 1992, “Trent Polytechnic and others had very much better faculties than some of the weaker universities.” In his recent book on universities, David Willetts observes that “Nottingham Trent University is a leader in education technologies”. However, other politicians, most commentators and many colleagues in the sector fall back on the misleading terminology derived from another age.

Why does this continuation of this hierarchy matter so much?

First and foremost, it belittles the efforts of the young people who work hard to get into, and even harder to get a good degree from a university like NTU.

This is particularly divisive when 25 per cent of our UK undergraduates come from the poorest households in society. Having thrived in circumstances that have not necessarily been supportive, they then find their progress in transforming their lives being undervalued by some members of a sector that espouses promoting social mobility as one of its key values. Until recent years, major employers followed this lead and overlooked such students in their recruitment practices; it is to their credit that most of these same employers are now leading the way in identifying talented recruits regardless of where they studied.

Second, it undermines the contribution of the thousands of committed and talented people who work in teaching-intensive and research-active universities such as NTU. We have achieved our recent accolades by combining innovation with implementation, providing outstanding student experience at considerable scale. It has been the achievement of academic and professional services teams who have harnessed their individual aspirations to our shared institutional ambition.         

Third, these outdated conceptions may hinder progress in those very institutions that still adopt them. What is the motivation to change if you and your colleagues believe that you are already “prestigious” and “elite”? 

Fourth, and finally, they can lead to responses to initiatives in policy and practice that may suggest a sense of entitlement to those both within and beyond the sector. This is as unhelpful as it is unrepresentative.

Edward Peck is the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University.

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Reader's comments (2)

If NTU wants to be a university, then it will have to live with being ranked and scrutinised as a university. The QS world ranking of NTU is 801-1000 The THE world ranking is 601-800 The QS national ranking of NTU is 72 The THE national ranking of NTU is 83 These rankings are telling us that NTU is barely recoginizable as a university. The reason for this is research. Even if the VC doesn't like to believe it, reputation and rankings are almost exclusively determined by research output. This is, after all, the main function of a 'university', i.e., scholarship. The UK model of a university as a glorified school (and I include most of the RG in this too) will not bring any accolades on the world stage. To be a successful university, NTU could look at the other NTU, in Singapore, which is ranked very highly and is <50 years old. It got there by focusing on high-quality research, as well as providing a solid education to its students, not by building quadrangles and writing articles in the THE.
In his challenge to the established hierarchy of universities, Edward Peck proposes new categories of teaching-intensive and teaching-active universities, to match existing designations for research. He asks why a record of success in the TEF, in widening participation and in graduate employment does not translate into a judgement of prestige. Peck also lament’s the enduring truth of Sir Howard Newby’s observation, who said in 2003: “The English do have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy”. (Times Higher blog, 03/02/2018). However, as was pointed out recently by Roger Brown, (Wonkhe 01/02/2018) we do not have substantial diversity of mission in UK higher education, and we find “Reduced between-institution diversity of mission, with emulation being the main form of competition in a positional market”. This desire for emulation has meant that the majority of UK universities have sought to signal prestige by research achievement. To that end, many universities have imposed research performance criteria on their research-active staff. Those expectations for readers and professors at Nottingham Trent do not differ significantly from those circulating in Russell Group universities, and neither do the disciplinary consequences for not meeting them. One limitation of his argument is that Peck does not supply any evidence that research-intensive universities are necessarily less teaching intensive. In fact, teaching loads have climbed for all staff at Russell Group universities as new workload models have been introduced. At many universities, much of the teaching is delivered by a casualized workforce of highly-qualified academics whose career options do not allow any other choice but to be teaching intensive. In any case, if we take the student experience as the point of reference, it is not apparent that students enjoy greater teaching intensity at universities in Professor Peck’s University Alliance than in the Russell Group. Hefce has just released the new subject-level TEF measures of teaching intensity and a key factor in the weighting calculation is staff-student ratio. Consequently, if Russell group universities are found to offer a lower staff-student ratio, then this will translate into a measure of greater teaching intensity. The TEF will also include a corroborating Teaching Intensity Student Survey in which students will be asked about their scheduled teaching hours. It remains to be seen whether the metric will provide clarity, but until there is evidence by which we can compare teaching intensity it may be best to avoid introducing unwelcome divisions into a sector which at this juncture would be best served by solidarity. Liz Morrish Nottingham