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.