Alan Ryan

November 4, 2005

The problem with league tables is that they ignore the fact that institutions are of different sizes and have different strengths

I was brought up to believe that it is wicked to shoot sitting ducks - avian flu was not a concern when I was taught how to use a .410 shotgun - but there are times when medical emergencies require it.

The sitting ducks of the week are league tables. Beginning with GCSE league tables, there was the wonderful attempt by Jacqui Smith, the Schools Minister, on Radio 4's Today programme to show that the Government was a model of stern rectitude. Indeed, it was highly successful in "driving up" standards (why are they always driven up and never just raised?) and absolutely not in the position of having been had for mugs by schools that saw their chance and took it.

She ran the familiar new Labour line: the Government was going to make sure that schools could not use the official rating of one GNVQ as the equivalent of four GCSE passes at A* to C to scamper up the tables; bang goes Telford. Did this mean that the Government thought apples and pears did not belong in the same table? Yes. Well, no. League tables were needed.

Long pause. Familiar new Labour diversion: "We should congratulate the children on their efforts." Right, you say. Has little Freida qualified for the Olympic trials? Yes, says the minister. Really? you ask. Well, see how nicely she has tied her shoelaces, says the minister.

As a simple exercise in mental hygiene, we should never let anyone change the question, and never forget that excellent means "excellent at" and that "at" matters. What are you good at? is the question to ask - on the assumption you have already asked: "What is this stuff good for?"

We advance to Estelle Morris doing her bit for Sunderland University, of which she is pro vice-chancellor. She notices that in the student satisfaction league table, universities that normally languish way down the rankings come well towards the top. Quite right, too. If the question is whether students felt they were looked after and taught punctiliously, it is unlikely that flashy places that poach research stars will score highly.

Until the next research assessment exercise is over, half the staff will be wondering whether to accept an offer they have had from somewhere that wants their publications list, while the other half will be wondering whether the fact that they have not had an offer means that they will be declared "research inactive", aka "brain dead".

Does this mean Sunderland is doing research of the same kind as Cambridge University, as Ms Morris rashly went on to suggest? I hope not, because if it does somebody is wasting a lot of money in the Fens. It may well be true that the research Sunderland does is exactly what the people it is done for need, just as it may well be true that their teaching is just what their students need. In which case, the folk in Sunderland are excellent at what they are doing. Full stop, no league tables. Does anyone really want a table comparing violinists and tennis players? In terms of what, exactly? So, we reach John Sutherland, who has fallen into the pit Lord Giddens dug himself a few years ago. He notices that if you stick together all the London colleges, you could claim they were "better" than Oxbridge, better in terms of securing large research grants. Being a loyal Oxonian, I observe only sotto voce that Sutherland's University College is on its own and by itself in many ways more interesting than Oxford University; but this is a matter of taste. Some people like capital cities and some like the south Midlands.

But did he never ask himself what it would prove if University College London, Imperial College London, the London School of Economics, Birkbeck, Queen Mary and the colleges of art and music brought in between them more funding than Oxford and Cambridge? The merged Manchester/ University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology is in the same ballpark as Oxford or Cambridge, but on the basis of having twice as many students and faculty. If you deal in research funding per faculty member, agglomerated Manchester is only half as impressive as Oxford, Cambridge or UCL, whatever Alan Gilbert, the Manchester vice-chancellor and president, says.

The crucial question is: so what? What has pulled UCL, Imperial and several others up the league tables is the funding for their medical schools. Strip that out, and reality returns. Higher turnover does wonders for your standing in The Times league tables, and nothing for your intellectual life. Indeed, one of the under-noticed disasters of the past decade has been the way medical funding has dictated the policies of universities that exist for better purposes than running a high-level trade school - such as reading Plato and Polybius, studying molecular biology, putting on bad plays and an infinity of other things that make life interesting.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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