Upending league tables

April 17, 2008

Gerard Kelly gives three reasons for maintaining league tables (Leader, 10 April).

First, he says they give information that was apparently not there prior to league tables' existence; but that is not true. Rather, league tables use a very small and restricted selection of data to engender a ranking. They therefore, of necessity, misrepresent what institutions do.

Second, he says they use indices and data provided by the sector itself and are thus preferable to "partisan prospectuses".

This is like saying that I, as an individual, am best described by crude photofit measurements (height, weight, eye colour and a small selection of other associated data) and not by a description of things that are at the heart of my personality.

Third - and this is the most spectacularly irrational of all - Kelly says that league tables are so inconsistent with each other as to allow any institution or individual to disregard them: their usefulness, apparently, is that they are useless in doing what they are alleged to do.

Joy Carter's appeal to the vacuous term of "modernisation" is no stronger ("It's time for a bigger table", 10 April).

Her desire to include all institutions in higher education (and some that are not) and to "allow users to select the quality indicators important to them" is, essentially, a desire to allow any reader of the tables to make of them what he or she will by selecting information au choix, and thereby deny the table any ostensible objective reality. And yet that desire - to reflect reality more fully - is supposedly why we are to modernise the league tables in the first place.

League tables have contributed to the commodification of higher education and, much worse, to the commodification of knowledge, research, learning and teaching. They are pernicious in that they present "information" about the sector as if it were "knowledge" of the sector.

It is time to scrap them, and return to what higher education is about: thinking.

Thomas Docherty, University of Warwick.

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