Tables help cut through swamp of data and hype

May 10, 2002

Universities increasingly see league tables as a fact of life and carp less about them, says Bernard Kingston

University league tables are with us again. They are increasingly important in students' decisions about where to go to university. And in her recent Reith Lectures, Onora O'Neill referred to the role of league tables in the quest for accountability. But why bother with these at all when so much of the raw data is increasingly in the public domain? Perhaps league tables have come of age and do indeed fulfil a need among the plethora of information and advice available to applicants and their mentors.

With the advent of mass higher education, the context of university recruitment has changed markedly from the more relaxed times of much of the past century. The government is committed to half of all 18-30 year olds participating in higher education by 2010. Many universities are chasing applicants, and competition for able students is intense. No doubt in part reflecting this change, university structures have been re-organised, some to include senior marketing and public relations appointments with a brief to promote image and brand.

One of the inevitable outcomes of this change is highlighted in the Universities UK survey The Right Choice? , which reports student criticism of a somewhat biased "travel brochure" tendency in prospectuses. It recommends more independence and objectivity in the information provided. Likewise, in this competitive environment, it is hardly surprising that some generic presentations in schools and colleges on higher education at large are at risk of becoming rather more ambassadorial for the contributor's institution.

But applicants have to choose in an increasingly diverse and complex system, while the universities and some of their national agencies remain understandably reluctant to compare and contrast.

There are indications that the climate of opinion is changing. The British Council publication of essential resources to be carried by its offices has a note on the use of ratings and rankings. Even the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has indicated that it will introduce a set of electronic tables.

Nonetheless, objective comparative information is hard to come by. Many new applicants and their parents are unfamiliar with the jargon of higher education and seek interpretation and explanation. Applicants could, of course, spend many hours poring over Higher Education Statistics Agency publications to generate their own comparisons. But most would rather pop down to the local newsagent or log on to Amazon.

A group of higher education experts that knows the sector and consults with insiders is more likely to generate better quality information than someone working alone. Of course, compilers have developed methodologies that reflect their own professional insights and expertise, but at their best, league tables are impartial and unashamedly student-centred efforts that help cut through the excesses of data and hype.

League tables are a simple and effective way to put universities' claims into context. When a university says it is "one of the UK's leading research universities with a reputation nationally and internationally for high quality teaching and research", the fact that it did not make the top 30 for teaching or research in The THES tables puts the claim in perspective. When another university says "our procedures for ensuring our courses are carefully designed, well taught, relevant to employment and backed up by research, are nationally recognised as being of the highest standard and quality", the fact that it failed to make the top 60 for teaching or the top 40 for graduate destinations again puts the claim into context (though if you read the sentence carefully, it claims only that the university's procedures are of the highest standard).

The raw data for the 2002 Times League Table are published in The THES to coincide with the table itself in The Times . This year, we were able to include the full cycle of subject reviews and the outcome of the 2001 research assessment exercise. In addition, some of the quality measures in the league table take account of differing subject mix in the universities, a valid criticism of previous tables.

The considerable ambivalence towards league tables in many universities often results in public criticism but private consultation, and a ready willingness to extract nuggets for use in press releases and on websites.

That criticism, initially from the highest levels, is now more muted and more constructive.

Bernard Kingston is a partner in Mayfield University Consultants ( ) but writes here in a personal capacity. The Times Good University Guide contains almost 100 tables of subject and university data and will be available after May 24 from all major bookshops or direct from The Times or HarperCollins websites.

University League Tables 2002

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.