V-c halts league tables

April 9, 2004

Oxford University's next vice-chancellor has won a legal battle against his native New Zealand government to stop the publication of university league tables.

John Hood, who will join Oxford this autumn from Auckland University, blocked a comparison between New Zealand and UK research performance.

The High Court in New Zealand this week ruled in favour of Auckland and Victoria University in Wellington to prevent the Tertiary Education Commission from publishing the comparison.

The judge said the universities were not given sufficient warning of the inclusion of the comparison in an appendix to the commission's first national assessment of research in New Zealand's universities.

He ruled that it should be withdrawn but left the way open for the commission to publish a comparison in the future.

Dr Hood said: "The court has found that Tec was in breach of natural justice and legitimate expectations in doing such a comparison. It needs to look closely at its processes to ensure that it does not breach these again."

Andrew West, the commission head, said his organisation would begin to consult with the universities immediately. "The ruling shows that international comparisons are valid. It was claimed they cannot be undertaken - the judge found that they can be," he said.

Many vice-chancellors have become concerned at the number of league tables published in newspapers and by funding bodies. They argue that some of the tables can unfairly damage reputations and hit international recruitment.

Dr Hood said: "If government agencies do undertake international comparisons based on data obtained from institutions, they must be clear what the data will be used for and ensure that the comparisons compare like with like and are robust."

The two universities obtained an interim injunction stopping publication of the appendix in March. The commission subsequently delayed publication of its entire results. These are now expected later this month.

Michael Cullen, the New Zealand deputy prime minister, criticised the universities' reluctance to be benchmarked against British institutions.

"In an economy as small as New Zealand's, we cannot afford to take a confrontational approach to challenges as important as this," he said.

Dr Hood responded: "We do not fear being judged internationally, against British universities or any others, but we ask only that the comparison is on a fair and valid basis."

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