The recently published university department performance indicators are lists of single numbers that take no account of important variations in the disparate educational factors offered by various institutions. Thus the simplistic ordering is, at best, very misleading.
For instance, the scientific disciplines consist of several components. One is a catalogue of basic knowledge that a student needs to absorb. A second is an understanding and awareness of how this knowledge can be and is used. Most important is the development of the ability to apply scientific methods to the solution of new problems. The last has become an increasingly important skill as technology comes to dominate more and more of our everyday lives.
Such creative ability is what science is all about, and it is developed only in an environment where new knowledge is being uncovered, that is in institutions with strong research commitments.
Departments with no significant research activity and others with outstanding, internationally recognised research records appear side by side in these lists. As they clearly provide quite different educational services, it must be obvious that no useful information is contained in such ordering. These listings do a disservice to the departments and an even greater disservice to students. The fact that the lists are based on assessments made in some cases more than eight years ago is an equally serious criticism.
Sir Harold Kroto
The Royal Society of Chemistry
University of Sussex