It's time for a bigger table

University rankings must include all relevant institutions and the information users are seeking, argues Joy Carter

April 10, 2008

University league tables need to change. They are very popular with the public, which is why newspapers love to publish them and why they are probably here to stay. They are highly influential, which explains the love-hate relationship universities and colleges have with them. There is even evidence that they have made institutions work harder at collecting data on their own performance. So what is wrong?

The key problem with most league tables in their present form is that they fail to achieve their supposed purpose - which is to provide students and other stakeholders with full and accurate information on where to find the best of the kind of university-level education they are looking for.

One cause of this is simply that some higher education institutions are missing from the main tables. They are omitted for various and generally weak reasons. Some are excluded or given a zero rating because they are small and specialist, an issue of real concern to the body that represents most of them, GuildHE. Some have a high proportion of part-time or postgraduate students. Others are absent because they have yet to gain university status or their own degree-awarding powers.

It might seem a fair argument that only universities should be included in university league tables. But recent changes have blurred the line between institutions with a university title and those without. There are university colleges and institutions with other titles that are universities in all but name. Others may be too small to be called universities but are delivering university-level education to a high standard. There are even now further education colleges that may be preparing to bid for foundation degree-awarding powers.

As a member of the steering group for the Higher Education Funding Council for England-commissioned research into the impact of league tables, it is perhaps not surprising that I support the conclusions of the report on the study discussed this week at Hefce's annual conference. Nevertheless, I think it would be hard for anyone to contest its argument that "not including the full range of higher education provision that would be of interest to the target users of league tables is a significant limitation on their usefulness".

An example illustrates just how limiting this practice is. Last year, there was a breakthrough for Harper Adams University College. It was listed in the main Sunday Times university league table for the first time. The results shocked even the table's compilers. Out of a list of 123 institutions, Harper Adams was the highest placed newcomer, in 44th position. It was also ranked joint third in the newspaper's university of the year listing. Search through the rankings of the other major league tables, however, and Harper Adams is nowhere to be found. To the users of these tables, this institution that has been ranked in one table above Goldsmiths, University of London, and the universities of Brighton, Bangor and Portsmouth has been rendered invisible.

Many other institutions that have been independently rated as among the best in the country for teaching and other factors that really matter to students, such as academic support and learning resources, suffer the same fate as Harper Adams in most of the league tables.

Another serious failure is that the publishers are vague about the methods and weightings they use for calculating scores. One factor that is clear in their methodologies, however, is that they favour traditional universities by placing the greatest emphasis on research assessment exercise scores, entry qualifications and good degrees.

This tendency to reinforce an old-fashioned idea of higher education is unhelpful at a time when the sector is being encouraged to respond to the challenges of today's society and the knowledge-based economy, and to the needs of a more diverse mix of students.

The best way forward is to modernise league tables. As the Hefce report suggests, their format and content should be made more user friendly and interactive. This should be done in such a way as to include all higher education institutions, and to allow users to select the quality indicators important to them, and the weightings applied to these factors.

League tables are not going to go away, but that does not mean they cannot change. Their compilers need to bring them into the 21st century if they are to be of any real help to their users. Then maybe we will all love them.

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