Leader: Academe has much to gain from table talk

October 25, 2002

People working in higher education will never like league tables. Nor will teachers, policemen or doctors. Any broad-brush rankings contain sufficient anomalies for professionals to argue that fair comparisons are impossible in their field. There were signs this week, however, that the academic world was at least (and at last) coming to terms with a process that is now firmly entrenched. A Universities UK seminar on the subject was far more positive than its predecessors and threw up several options for future developments.

Some still entertain the hope that rankings are a passing fad, but this is wishful thinking. More newspapers than ever compile league tables, and every survey suggests that applicants use them. Tables are likely to become more influential after the government's acceptance of the case for dispensing with teaching quality assessments at subject level. Where else will prospective students go for comparative data? They are being promised student satisfaction surveys and summaries of external examiners' reports, but neither is a substitute for objective scrutiny of teaching standards by an experienced practitioner.

The obvious replacement in league tables, as Leeds vice-chancellor Sir Alan Wilson acknowledged at the seminar, would be reputational surveys based on the US model. The THES pioneered peer reviews of this type in the 1980s, but recent experiments by others have met predictable hostility. Universities are unlikely to hold the line indefinitely, but they could delay any such initiative and cast doubt on the validity of US-style rankings. A more productive attitude, given that tables will continue to appear, would be for universities to exert more influence over their development. Had that been the approach when league tables were first published, some of the less popular features of the existing crop might have been avoided.

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