New universities are more effective and efficient at teaching, study claims. Tony Tysome reports
New universities are more academically effective and efficient than their Russell Group neighbours in teaching and widening participation, according to the conclusions of a study by management researchers.
In a paper published in an international benchmarking journal, Mike Simpson, a Sheffield University Management School senior lecturer, and Jeff Pursglove, a performance management consultant, claim that a formula they devised quantifies how much better new universities are than Russell Group institutions at these core activities.
Using publicly available data on undergraduate intakes, retention rates, degree scores, profit margins and staff costs, the two say their formula shows which universities add the most value in terms of advancing students' academic achievements and turning staff salaries into disposable income.
They found, by applying the formula to a sample of seven new universities paired with seven Russell Group institutions located in the same cities, that all the new universities performed better than their pre-92 counterparts on a combination of teaching and widening-participation effectiveness and efficiency.
Even though it is assumed that new universities focus more on teaching and widening participation than the research-intensive Russell Group institutions, the authors argue that these are meant to be core activities for both types of university.
The paper says: "This means effectiveness of teaching and widening participation is a measure that can be reasonably used to assess, compare and benchmark the performance of all English universities."
Dr Pursglove argued that, in the absence of significant research funding, new universities have geared their operations to appealing to their prospective students and supporting them through their studies.
Another formula comparing staff salary costs with universities' disposable income - crucially discounting interest paid on endowments and investments - also marks out all new universities as more "academically efficient" than Russell Group universities.
The paper comments: "We are not suggesting that different academic efficiencies are a reflection of the attributes of the academic staff themselves, but rather that they are a consequence of the business environment, strategy and operations of their employer."
Michael Driscoll, Middlesex University vice-chancellor and chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "It would help if there were more reports such as this to help explode myths and stereotypes and make policymakers and funders pause for thought when making assumptions about different types of institutions."
The methods developed to calculate academic effectiveness and efficiency in the Benchmarking the Performance of English Universities study are the culmination of seven years of research, writes Tony Tysome.
The study's measure of academic efficiency is based on the difference between an institution's staff costs and its disposable income. Against this yardstick, the bigger the difference, the greater the efficiency.
The authors admit that additional research income from the 2001 research assessment exercise and variable top-up fees, neither of which was factored into the calculations, could make Russell Group institutions appear more efficient.
But Jeff Pursglove doubted that the extra income would be enough for the Russell Group institutions to catch up with new universities.
The formula is also a measure of the process by which "inputs" are converted into "outputs". In this case, the inputs are the number of students from widening-participation backgrounds with relatively low A-level scores, while the outputs are the number who gain first or upper second-class degrees.
Mike Simpson accepted that there was a potential issue in this calculation over perceived degree standards but that this did not invalidate the report's conclusions.
He said: "The general assumption is that a Russell Group degree is better than one from a new university. But that is very difficult to prove and to some extent is just a matter of opinion."
a*b / c(100-d)
a = the number of young, full-time first degree students entering university in 2000-01 who were still in higher education a year later, expressed as a percentage of intake
b = the percentage of first and upper second-class degrees awarded by each university
c = the mean A-level point scores of undergraduates entering each university expressed as a percentage of the maximum possible score
d = the proportion of young, full-time first-degree entrants at each university from low-participation neighbourhoods.
Liverpool John Moores: most effective and efficient
The benchmarking study marks out Liverpool John Moores University as the clear leader on academic effectiveness and efficiency and therefore demonstrating "overall best practice".
Carolyn Williams, the university's director of student recruitment and widening participation, said this had a lot to do with the fact that widening participation was embedded in everything that the university and its academics did.
She said: "Two thirds of our students come from what we would consider to be widening-participation backgrounds. That means we cannot view widening participation as an add-on to our main activities - it is a core part of them."
One of the best things a university could do to improve its academic effectiveness is to start building a relationship with prospective students at an early age, she said.
As well as providing school pupils with student mentors, the university works hard on fostering an open, friendly academic environment.