Why Birkbeck is leaving the UK rankings race

Domestic league tables in the UK don’t capture the quality and accessible higher education Birkbeck provides to non-traditional students, says David Latchman 

October 10, 2018
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Since the turn of the millennium, we have been told that league tables differentiate the good universities from the bad. They help students choose the best, the theory goes, and make those underachieving places buck up their ideas. In a world where higher education is increasingly marketised and where undergraduate courses cost up to £9,250 a year for domestic students and more for those from overseas, this is all-important. But what do these tables really tell us, and do they even reflect the best features of vastly different institutions?

Some more obviously measure important points than others. Take football, for example. A table that ranks teams for the most wins and differentiates between goals scored and conceded makes perfect sense. So in university terms, you might naturally expect that excellent research and teaching would automatically propel an institution to the upper reaches. 

That a place also gives a lifeline to those hard-to-reach students who may otherwise miss the chance of a degree, as well as championing diversity, surely must up its position. And that it breaks the mould by enabling people to work and study simultaneously, to ease their long-term financial burden, must have the potential for a place in Europe next season?

Well, unfortunately many university league tables aren’t like that. Many of their metrics relate to inputs – entry qualifications, spend on student facilities – rather than outcomes. Imagine if, instead of reflecting performance on the pitch, the Premiership was decided by the transfer price of the players, the cost of the stadium and the amount that fans spent on tickets and merchandise.

For a bit of background, Birkbeck is a unique institution with a history of extending higher education stretching back almost 200 years. We have stayed true to our original mission to enable working people to study and have embraced people who may never have dreamed that they could study for a degree. 

The majority of our undergraduates are over 21. And of those studying full-time for a first degree, 75 per cent have what are considered low-tariff qualifications, while a quarter of our 5,000 part-time undergrads have nothing more than GCSEs before coming to Birkbeck. Yet they are still capable of meeting the academic demands to emerge with a prestigious University of London degree. More than a third of our undergraduate entrants come from low-income households and qualify for our financial support package.

Actively accepting students who don’t necessarily have the straight A*s and As that other universities seek does not come at the expense of quality, though. Birkbeck is highly ranked for both teaching (measured by the teaching excellence framework) and research (measured by the research excellence framework). We are one of only 24 non-specialist UK universities to appear in the top 25 per cent for REF scores and hold a silver or gold TEF award. 

 

After some long, hard consideration, Birkbeck has decided to withdraw from UK university rankings. They simply don’t recognise Birkbeck’s key strengths and we are actually penalised for our successes. One of our great assets is our willingness to take students on merit rather than just academic achievements. But tables reward universities that set high entry grades, so our decision to have lower, inclusive access requirements counts against us in these tables.

Another issue that affects our placing is our lower rate of degree completion. For our increasing number of full-time students, we are never going to have the same completion rate as a campus institution with daytime teaching. If you were to consider part-time students (who are not counted in the tables), we actually have a sector-leading performance for completion.

Many of our students are at a different stage of life, with more things competing for their time and finances. But it is unjust to penalise Birkbeck for providing opportunities to those who would not get them otherwise.

Birkbeck is also hobbled by low spending on student social facilities. Our students do not live on campus and are taught in the evening, so of course we spend proportionately less than other institutions on social and sports facilities, just as we spend proportionately more on our access and outreach activities. Incidentally, increasing the number of commuter students is a government priority being examined by Philip Augar’s post-18 education review so we are actually ahead of the curve.

In essence, the tables struggle to deal with anything other than a campus university catering to 18-year-olds who have just moved away from home. They emphasise the traditional hierarchy that places Oxford and Cambridge at the top and it’s all downhill from there.

We know that leaving is not without its challenges. For a start, people will assume that this is a case of sour grapes because we don’t do well. But the truth is that Birkbeck is doing exceptionally well in the ways that matter most – our teaching and research are excellent, and we are fulfilling our mission to open up high-quality education to a broader range of students. We are poorly served by these tables and so are the students who may glance at our position and be put off from studying here.

Eyebrows may be raised in the short term, but soon our absence will soon become the norm. Instead of rushing to defend ourselves every time a new table is published, we can talk about the great things we are doing: enriching lives, opening doors and providing opportunities that our students did not believe they would ever have. We are in a league of our own.

David Latchman is master of Birkbeck, University of London.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Rankings ill serve us, so we’re opting out

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Reader's comments (12)

If Birkbeck is indeed against spurious metrics then why did a committee chaired by Latchman fail to promote a female academic because of the NSS, while not applying the NSS in the promotion of men from the same round and get taken to an employment tribunal for misusing the NSS in promotion and applying different promotion criteria to men and women? That is despite the NSS not actually even being in the stipulated promotion criteria and is an unethical metric with which to block an academic from promotion in courses delivered by dozens of staff. It would be great for Birkbeck to behave more ethically. It is hypocritical for it to reject league tables on one hand while using the NSS to mistreat its academics behind the scenes.
The wax lyrics about Birkbeck by Latchman are not matched by the views of Birkbeck employees who are apparently leaving in droves https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Reviews/Employee-Review-Birkbeck-College-RVW22872051.htm Quite a few academics there say they are embarrassed to admit to working in Birkbeck and refer to it as a corrupt place so Birkbeck cannot possibly be as great as Latchman suggests. Birkbeck’s withdrawal from the university league tables is clearly a situation of the fox badmouthing the grapes it can’t reach. The league tables show that Birkbeck is one of the worst universities in the country whether or not it admits to it.
Birkbeck is a definitely not a hotbed of equality. I am appalled but not surprised to hear that Birkbeck has been taken to court for sexist discrimination in using different criteria to promote men and women. I remember Birkbeck was also in the Times recently about its gender pay gap and inspiring academics to start collective action https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/joint-legal-action-only-way-close-gender-pay-gap
Birkbeck, the emperor’s new clothes. I think we can see that Birkbeck is desperately trading on the back of REF 2014 but that was 4 years ago. Many academics have left Birkbeck since. The Academic Reputation Survey results that form the Times Higher World rankings are tautological with local rankings. Academics who compete the survey are not going to be hoodwinked into rating Birkbeck highly anymore when it is gaining the reputation for being a corrupt place in disarray. Birkbeck’s potential students are not going to buy this sort of spin doctoring anymore either.
You say this: 'I remember Birkbeck was also in the Times recently about its gender pay gap and inspiring academics to start collective action https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/joint-legal-action-only-way-close-gender-pay-gap' but fail to acknowledge that most other London universities are worse. This is from the same article: 'At Birkbeck, female academics were paid £4,675 less than men. Elsewhere in the capital, the gender gap at Brunel University London was £6,584; at King’s College London, it was £9,508; and at City, University of London, it was £10,457. The list goes on.'
@Piplaw that is irrelevant to the fact that £4,675 is the gender pay gap in Birkbeck and that is a lot of money for women to lose each year. If that is not a lot of money to you then please feel free to donate that amount from your own salary each year and see how hard that hits you when you live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It is not a gender pay gap competition of the least worst. It is like saying unfairness to women in Birkbeck is okay as long as worse unfairness is going on elsewhere. Wrong.
How many senior female academics in Birkbeck earn anywhere near Latchman’s £400K annual emolument or the £350K annual salary earned by (mostly male) deans in Birkbeck? The government really needs to look into actually doing something about universities like this.
People who protest against sexism in Birkbeck are silenced quite brutally. A group of Birkbeck staff signed a very reasonable petition letter asking the dean of Birkbeck’s business school to ask people organising school events to ensure that there were more women invited to speak. The dean took disciplinary action against those who signed the letter and one woman lost her job in the process. Another had her research funding terminated. What did Latchman do to censure the business school dean? Nothing.
That is very shocking. How can people be charged with disciplinary action in Birkbeck for signing a petition against sexism? How was the business school dean allowed to get away with that sort of behaviour? What happened? Can the Times Higher Education cover that story? And what is the story with Birkbeck misusing the NSS to not promote an academic and going to court? What’s that story, could the Times Higher please cover that story?????? It sounds shocking. No wonder UCL recently charged Latchman with “reckless disregard” for the research fraud going on under his watch, with his team faking papers here and there and a large multitude of articles by Latchman et al. retracted. It sounds like Latchman as the head of Birkbeck has similar reckless disregard for the outrageous shenanigans by his deans.
I’m a Birkbeck student and I’m disgusted by the things going on. As for Birkbeck staff being punished by the School of Business Dean for signing a letter against sexism that is beyond the pale. If I wasn’t bound to paying Birkbeck fees for the rest of my final year I would pull out and transfer to another university. Disgusting.
By leaving the domestic league tables, Birkbeck has become defensive, which in itself contradicts Latchman's statement
Birkbeck leaving the university league tables is like KFC boycotting the Michelin Stars

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