The nitty gritty of student choice

September 25, 1998

Are league tables here to stay? Jennie Bristow asks pairs of vice-chancellors, heads of department and students how important they think they are

John Brooks Vice-chancellor University of Wolverhampton

League tables have some value for old and ancient universities, where there is a belief that research has an influence on the quality of teaching and learning.

But for most students, who are making choices about which university will best suit their particular needs, I am not sure. I need evidence that research enhances teaching and learning and so question the use of research as a performance indicator.

League tables do not reflect greater participation. They are cast in an elite, selective form. They certainly do not support the government's approach to education, which is of an inclusive rather than exclusive society.

League tables do affect very gifted students with high A-level points who are moving straight into full-time higher education. For those with more modest A-level points and the growing number of mature students who are combining study with work and family responsibilities, I do not think that they provide the information these students require. They need information about flexibility of the curriculum, the nature of teaching and learning provided and the way in which the university can meet their social and learning needs.

This makes league tables largely irrelevant for the majority of students recruited by universities like Wolverhampton. We would see the strengths of this university in terms of access, regionality, vocational curriculum and collaboration, and of course none of those feature in the league tables.

Comparing new and old universities is not comparing like with like: there is no indication of scale and no account of choice. Some universities offer a small number of degree courses with no student choice.

Most new universities offer a flexible vocational curriculum in which, for example, things like sandwich placement and involvement with employers in planning the curriculum are very important but not reflected in the tables.

My main concern is that there is no fair reflection of value added. For those universities that see themselves predominantly as teaching institutions, our aim is to increase the educational value that we give to our students.

David Burnley Head of the school of English University of Sheffield

As a head of department, league tables are a curiosity: it is interesting to flick through and see yourself high on them, but their importance may be overestimated. Some universities are at a disadvantage in degree league tables. They do not all start at the same baseline.

Universities have always offered people advantages. One of them is the educational advantage. Universities also enable students to mingle with people of different backgrounds: it broadens their social horizons. The very fact of being a graduate puts you in a different social group: it is kind of a club, and now a very large club.

Personal development is as important as the academic side. There is no simple dichotomy between Oxbridge or the very established older civics and the newest ones in the social aspect of university life. This will vary according to the departments that students go to: some departments will be smaller and friendlier, others will be larger and impersonal.

Word of mouth influences students. The personal contact of teachers and graduates often persuades students far more than advertising or league tables. Maybe students have an impression of a particular subject at a particular university and league tables influence that. There is also a tradition, a track record over the years that particular schools and departments have, and that has as much impact as any one single league table in any one year. I think that whole thing needs to be considered as a package: department, teaching rating, research rating, location and reputation.

David Head Head of department of modern languages University of Northumbria

I have a dual experience of league tables, both as an Higher Education Funding Council (England) subject assessor and as someone on the receiving end.

Because we opted for a joint languages assessment visit we ended up with 23 points out of 24, and the comments we have had in the national and local press have had a beneficial impact on the profile of the department. But the assessment visit to my department was in February 1996 and, although we have improved recruitment each year since then, meetings with students and interviews with clearing candidates have not shown that the league tables affected recruitment.

In principle, I am in favour of league tables, and the assessment in our case was an accurate reflection of the quality of the education provision in the department.

However, when the data has trickled through to the various publications - the books and also press summaries for applicants - they have become confused. When publications have tried to conflate the different scores and put in factors such as accommodation the end result is a bit of a lottery. More explanation would not go amiss. For example, you could take a department that did not do well on quality assessment visits but remarkably well in the research assessment exercise.

Some departments will give the new students access to their top researchers, but there are quite a few departments that have got their top researchers busy researching and teaching is supplemented quite extensively by graduate teaching assistants - paid for by the research money that researchers have attracted!

I have been at the University of Northumbria since July 1995. Before that I was at the University of Bath for many years. So I have seen both sides. This department is much more dependent on a wider range of students and the local population. Departments like ours often have students from a lower income background and have a harder job in "adding value". We feel more focus should be placed on the way we enable students to realise potential that may otherwise have been overlooked or disregarded.

Perhaps like the comprehensives back in the 1950s and 1960s, the former polys are bringing together a wide range of abilities, opening up access and not getting the credit that is due.

Sir John Kingman Vice-chancellor University of Bristol

It is good that the raw material, the figures for different aspects of the universities' work - research assessments, teaching quality assessments and so on - should be reported and available to potential students and employers.

I suspect that league tables influence parents and teachers and other people who might be advising students.

The problems come when you try and put the raw material into a single list. The more you process the information to get it into the form of a league table the less useful and the more misleading it is. Different factors and the choice of how you weigh them can influence the outcome very rapidly. A university may have a high proportion of first-class honours degrees because it has very good teaching or very good students, or very low standards.

Often the information on which the league tables are based is incomplete: if you include the results of the teaching quality assessment, for instance, then not all subjects in all universities have yet been assessed. Because universities are quite different in their profiles you are not comparing like with like.

I would really prefer reporting of the raw information with it being summarised as little as is necessary to get within a reasonable space in a paper.

Graham Lee Final-year philosophy undergraduate Middlesex University

You get some idea of how good universities are when you apply, just from the kind of A levels they require. I went through clearing: I phoned up all the universities first and found out what they wanted, but it was making a virtue out of a necessity. It was a compromise between that and going for something that looked half-decent.

A good university challenges students to do the best. That is what I like about my course: a few teachers really do push you. But I also know I lose out because I am going to a former polytechnic. You know that courses are being watered down to accommodate some of the students. You would be foolish to go for a former poly if you got straight As.

You take factors such as the type of course and location into account but at the end of the day you always have to come to some kind of compromise based on what A-level grades you got.

At the end of the day your degree is assessed on academic merit - you don't get a certificate for coming from a poor background or being on an accommodating course. You get a certificate based on how well you mastered a discipline. So I think that the tables should stay pretty much as they are. Different universities achieve different results. This is a fact and I think we have to face it and not to ignore it.

Naomi Townshend

None of my friends looked at a league table when deciding which university to go to. Most had two criteria: the course and the location. A friend went to Brunel because she wanted to be an engineer and that is the best place for engineering. A couple went to do sports studies at Loughborough because it has a really good reputation, and it was near home. Most of my other friends went to Leeds, London and Manchester because they were big cities.

I think in the end the course wins out. The reputation of a university is important, but I wanted to go to Oxford and changed my mind because the course was not flexible enough. Cambridge is quite flexible, you are quite free to do what you want, so I think the courses are more important than the reputation of the university.

I chose my course by going to university fairs and reading UCAS books. I knew what I wanted to do so I looked at the grades they asked for, because I knew I would get high grades. A lot of people operate in that way: you know your predicted grades and from what universities ask, you know the academic level you're supposed to be working at.

I don't want to be elitist about it, but academia is the most important thing you get out of university. The fact that I'm going to get a degree out of Cambridge will look impressive. Everyone develops at university: they get an idea about life, take responsibility for themselves, or simply become an adult. I think that is just a normal part of university and I don't see Cambridge lacking in that.

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