League tables work in sport, but in higher education they devalue what they aim to measure, argues Frank Furedi.
League tables in football provide a clear indication of which team is most successful at winning games and scoring goals. They do not tell you everything about a team but give you a reasonable idea of its performance.
League tables in education tell you very little about actual performance. Often they deceive and sometimes they have a corrupting impact on an institution. Work carried out in a university cannot be meaningfully reduced to goals scored or to quantitative indices. Seven decades of league tables in the former Soviet Union encouraged factory bosses to meet quantitative targets at the expense of quality. It appears that British university bosses are adopting these Soviet practices to maintain or improve their position in league tables.
One of the perverse outcomes of league tables in higher education is to undermine the authority of what is being measured. According to the ethos promoted by league-table culture, institutions that award a high proportion of 2.1 and first-class degrees must be better than those that grant a smaller percentage. Institutions that succeed in increasing the proportion of students who graduate with a first are likely to improve their position relative to those that do not. From this perspective, a university where most graduates possess a 2.1 or first must be wonderful. That is "best practice".
So how do you ensure that your institution is rewarded for its "best practice"? Student quality cannot be swiftly improved through the latest teaching or managerial technique. Undergraduate performance is influenced by previous schooling and enhanced through the totality of students'
university experience. Good universities and great departments take decades to evolve. Even the cleverest staff development programme is unlikely to turn out academics who can inspire a new cohort of students to graduate with a higher degree classification than the previous cohort.
Student-support initiatives may help hold on to students who would otherwise drop out, but they will not turn 2.2 students into 2.1s and firsts.
In reality, today's best practice means improving the performance of undergraduates on paper. One way to achieve this is simply by marking "progressively". In some universities, examiners look at their shoelaces as they adopt a broad and very liberal interpretation of the marking process.
A more fashionable way of improving performance is through redefining what is assessed and how it is assessed. For example, essays can be replaced with reports and reports with poster presentations. As long as undergraduates do not just have to colour in books, someone will be able to justify a new method of assessment on the grounds that it is more inclusive than those bad old elitist practices.
But in the end, best practice requires that universities alter the way that final degree results are calculated. Changing the way that degrees are computed can have immediate and precise results. Recently, it was reported that Bangor University was to increase the percentage of graduates with a first or a 2.1 from about 52 per cent to 60 per cent in 2007. To catch up with nearby rival Aberystwyth University in The Times league table, Bangor sought to award more top degrees. But this would not make Bangor a superior university. Its undergraduates would not be any better educated. Its graduates would not be any better off. All that Bangor could possibly achieve would be to further discredit the prevailing system of degree classification.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.