Leader: Rank and defile?

June 22, 2007

Have league tables so corroded the university system that their value no longer compensates for their malign influence? That is the view taken by some institutions in the US — which have decided to boycott them — and one shared by many academics, and at least one boycotting university, in the UK. The subject is sufficiently noteworthy for the Higher Education Funding Council for England to conduct a review. As a long-term purveyor of league tables, The Times Higher can hardly claim to be disinterested in the result.

But it would be churlish to deny that the critics have some valid concerns. Do university league tables measure the right things? Not always, no. Some indices, such as the old teaching quality assessments, were past their sell-by dates. Others — such as a reliable way to measure the value universities add rather than the quality of the students they admit — have yet to be devised.

Are the data reliable? They can be used injudiciously but generally they are from impeccable sources, and most compilers have signed up to last year’s Unesco-inspired Berlin Principles, which aim to spread good practice.

Do they lead to abuse and are they misused? Yes, if, as reported, some institutions in the US are inflating grades to improve their standing and when some employers in the UK casually disregard candidates from universities lower down the league, whatever their personal qualities.

Will we cease to publish them? Almost certainly not. For all their faults, league tables allow institutions, those who work in them and those who wish to attend them to be compared and evaluated. They exist because people want them.

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