To boldly go… in well-trodden footsteps

Yet another meeting, yet another report that fails to break new ground. Gloria Monday fights boredom by totting up the number of legs in the room

June 30, 2008

Imagine the scene – a solemn gathering of academics sitting around a set of large tables, 18 academics to be precise, each with two legs, which makes 36 legs in all, every chair with four legs, and there are two chairs to each table, so that makes eight chair legs per table, each of which has four, and a total in the room of 144. That’s how I pass the time in the really pointless meetings – I count things such as shoes and left-handers, and chair legs and slats in the window blinds. It’s a lot more interesting than much of what is said around me, I can tell you.

But last week was different because we had a demonstration outside. The catering staff rose in revolt, demanded better pay and conditions; and when they were turned down they went out on strike and staged a demonstration right under the Senior Committee Room windows. They were gathering when I went in, but I didn’t realise what was going on until the meeting started. The vice-chancellor was chairing, and he did the usual old British imperial thing of pretending that nothing was happening, a bit like Sid James and Joan Sims in Carry on Up the Khyber when the residence is being blasted to bits and they just carry on having dinner and making polite conversation as the roof falls in on them. Very British, very restrained.

Our vice-chancellor, Big D, is an Ulsterman and he has quite a loud voice when he wants to make a point, so as the chanting grew louder he boomed at us in ascending decibels. Wee Tommie, his walleye blinking more frantically than usual, got up and shut the windows, which wasn’t exactly helpful since we were in the middle of a heat wave, and when that didn’t work he gestured to his secretary, who got up and closed all the blinds.

There we sat, in semidarkness, stifling, listening to Big D shouting at us and the catering staff chanting something that sounded like “Admit defeat, if you want to eat”. We were defeated in the end, the heat got so bad that our frail lady professor of statistics, a timid soul at the best of times, suddenly keeled over in a faint, whereupon the meeting was adjourned.

The meeting had been convened to discuss a report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the impact of league tables on British universities. The findings were laid before us and we learnt that:

  • More and more students use league tables to decide where they want to study.
  • Employers use league tables to sort sheep from goats.
  • Universities are desperately anxious about league tables.
  • The importance of league tables is on the increase.
  • There are more and more of the damned things appearing all the time.

None of this is rocket science, and had I been sure of being heard above Big D’s yelling and the caterers’ demands – and what I later came to realise was the groaning of the poor statistician – I would have said that my cats could have drawn the same conclusions in five minutes, and why had Hefce wasted yet more taxpayers’ money discovering the obvious.

For obvious it is. If you create a league table, people start noticing it, then they start believing it, and after that it’s a hop, skip and a jump to working to improve your place in it, with all the subsequent negative effects. This report, apparently claiming to have boldly gone where no man had gone before, was based on a restricted number of institutions and told us that the league tables were compiled with “insufficient transparency”.

Of course, you might want to say at this point, we all know that, just as we all know that “staff are affected by league tables”. Too bloody right, if you’re down near the bottom you feel like pooh, and if you’re up at the top you sneer at the less fortunate. Those of us in the middle – though we rose in one of these latest tables by two whole points, I am told – are completely buggered.

The report does what all these time-wasting reports do – it proposes areas for further research, including the influence of league tables on foreign governments, scholarship bodies, employers and individual academics, a list that should ensure that the research team is paid until after we all retire.

When she recovers, I’m going to talk to the statistician to see if she can come up with data for a league table of wasted effort in higher education. I bet Hefce would come close to the top.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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