Laurie Taylor – 24 November 2016

The official weekly newsletter of the University of Poppleton. Finem respice!

November 24, 2016
Data and bar graphs (detail)

Too many facts!

A recent campus-wide survey that revealed that more than 90 per cent of our current student population “desperately wished that they’d gone to another university” has been dismissed by Jamie Targett, our Director of Corporate Affairs, as “yet another example of the manner in which ‘facts and figures’ have come to dominate higher education”.

Targett told our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that this obsession with statistics and percentages and data reminded him of the worst excesses of Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. “Let’s face it, you can use facts to prove almost anything. Consider the Russell Group of universities. Everybody in higher education recognises that these universities are intrinsically superior to all others, but jealous and mean-minded critics are forever trying to undermine their true status with mere facts.

“So, when it comes to admissions policy, we’re told that black applicants to Russell Group universities such as Glasgow, Durham, Imperial College London and King’s College London are now more than 5 percentage points less likely to receive an offer than they would back in 2015. And once we’ve mastered those ‘facts’, we’re bombarded with the news that between 2014 and 2015 Russell Group universities accepted a lower proportion of students from poor backgrounds than they did 10 years ago. Facts. Facts. Facts.

“And in case that’s not enough facts for one day, how about the recent figures showing that Russell Group universities were outperformed on teaching quality by many smaller and post-92 universities, with Bristol rated 87th, the London School of Economics 81st and King’s College London 83rd? You want still more facts about Russell Group universities?”

Ponting nodded.

“Then how about the figures showing that nearly all the present Russell Group members in terms of research income and admissions standards have more in common with other pre-92 universities than with Oxford or Cambridge? Facts. Facts. Facts. You want still more?”

Ponting nodded.

“Then how about the latest analysis of lecturers’ pay that shows that Russell Group universities are little better than Sports Direct when it comes to precarious employment terms, with three-fifths of their academics employed on insecure contracts? Once again. Facts. Facts. Facts.”

But did Mr Targett have an alternative? “Oh yes. It’s time to get back to the good old days when we trusted what universities had to say about themselves rather than constantly undermining their claims with mere data. So, if the Russell Group asserts, as it does on its website, that it is ‘committed to maintaining…an outstanding teaching and learning experience’, and that it is wholeheartedly committed to ensuring ‘our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds’, then it should be taken at its word.”

But, wondered Ponting, if these statements on the Russell Group website were indeed contradicted by facts, might not this undermine public confidence in all official pronouncements?

Targett said that this view was “out of touch with the times”. He pointed out that, according to a host of commentators, “we now live in post-truth* times” and that in this respect the errors of omission and commission on the Russell Group website were very much in tune with modern values. “They are, all in all, an example of educational Trumpery at its very best.”

* Post-truth “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Dictionaries)

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