Data Act overturns top table of colleges

July 23, 2004

It has been the unofficial but influential league of Oxford University colleges since the 1960s, but the annual Norrington table was blighted this week by concerns over dirty tricks and inaccuracy.

The credibility of the table, which ranks colleges according to their graduates' academic performance, was shaken by claims that the Data Protection Act has rendered it invalid.

The Act allows students to keep their exam results private and leaves no way of knowing how many students have withheld their results.

The Oxford student union also claimed that the table could be easily manipulated by unscrupulous colleges, which could apply pressure to poorly performing students to withhold their results.

"The results of the Norrington table are now invalid," said Michael Beloff, the president of Trinity College. "How much interest would there be in a Premier League table that omitted an unidentified number of matches?"

John Blake, student union president, said: "I hope it does not happen, but I can easily imagine a situation where tutors put pressure on students to withhold their results if they're expecting low marks. Dirty tricks are made easy."

The table was conceived by former Trinity president Sir Arthur Norrington in 1962. It allocates points for the class of degree obtained by each student on a sliding scale. A final overall score is given as a percentage of the possible maximum score available.

In recent years, the table has been compiled for The Times newspaper by enterprising undergraduate students, who simply take the data from results lists posted in each college.

This year, results for 2,793 graduates were included, compared with 2,974 last year, although it is not clear how many used the Data Protection Act to opt out.

Analysis of the figures for The Times Higher by an Oxford undergraduate appears to show that some of the most significant movements in the rankings this year were for colleges with the largest drop in the number of students counted.

Harris Manchester College, which traditionally resides at the bottom of the 30-strong list, moved up to 28th this year, but only 12 students' results were counted, compared with a reported 32 last year.

Judith Nisbet, academic administrator at HMC, said: "Those who withheld their names did so of their own volition, and under no pressure from the college, and indeed all of them got either firsts or upper seconds. If these results had been included, they would undoubtedly have improved our position." She said the college records showed 20 finalists last year, a drop of eight students.

Balliol College moved from fifth last year to fourth, with 32 fewer graduates included. Andrew Graham, master of Balliol, said: "A great many of us in Oxford would rather the class lists continued to be comprehensive, but that is not something we can now achieve.

"Balliol would never dream of encouraging students to ask to have their names withheld. (The) suggestion that we might do so in order to mislead people about our position in a ranking is scurrilous."

Jesus College moved up seven places from 14th to seventh, but there 19 fewer graduates were included.

Sir Peter North, principal of Jesus, said that five students opted to keep their results private under the Data Protection Act - had they been included, the college's results would have been "marginally better".

"The table is not wholly accurate as it no longer includes every graduate," he said.

College heads confirmed that there had been "talk" of Oxford producing its own official version of the table, but the university this week would "neither confirm or deny" the speculation.

"An official statement of the results is more desirable than something done by students paid by the press," Sir Peter said.

An spokeswoman for Oxford said: "The table is produced independently of the University of Oxford and we do not endorse it."

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