University league tables should be relegated

Students would benefit enormously if only universities felt freer to innovate and collaborate, says Nick Bevan

March 8, 2018
Daniel Mitchell illustration (8 March 2018)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

One of my early memories is sitting with my family, huddled over a small black-and-white TV in 1966, watching England win the World Cup. I was reminded of it recently when told that “1966” was the code to access a particular university building – the joke, of course, being that this was a number that would never need to be changed.

Indeed, there is much about British universities that appears immune to change – and that inflexibility is only being worsened by the modern glut of football-style league tables in which they are ranked.

Football teams have to do one thing – win matches – so it is fair to rank them on this single KPI. But the logic breaks down when it comes to institutions whose missions vary. League tables drive us to imitate those higher in the pecking order, creating a zero-sum relationship among the participants and discouraging risk and innovation.

In the case of limited research funding, you need a measure, however imperfect, to drive competitive allocation. In teaching, by contrast, while there needs to be some assessment to assure applicants that they will receive value for money, the policy aim must surely be to ensure that all universities meet or exceed this standard. Instead, we in England group universities into three divisions – gold, silver and bronze – that from the outset condemn a quarter of institutions to be regarded as potentially substandard.

Some of the UK’s universities are the finest in the world and long may it stay that way. But as we have seen in many different contexts, you can get so hung up on success that it distorts perceptions and becomes a barrier to progress and innovation – resulting in complacency and pale imitation or, at the other end of the spectrum, resentment and charges of elitism. “Triumph confirms us in our habits,” as Clive James notes, and the logic of league tables has been to drive all universities down a similar path. Too often the fees paid by students focused merely on getting a graduate job are used to subsidise research, instead of delivering the core social and academic skills that get them through the employer’s door.

Perhaps I am fighting a losing battle here. We have a culture built on league tables; the only public service that appears not to be ranked is, interestingly, the Civil Service. But we own our student experience and mode of delivery and what strikes me most, after 35 years in the sector, is how much students have changed and how little university programmes have adapted in consequence.

The traditional model of university education works well for many – particularly middle-class school-leavers. But in a rapidly changing world, why do we think that everyone is best served by, for example, a single academic calendar that starts in the autumn, a standardised lecturer contract, a single exam period each year, a selection of modules limited to a single institution and a binary choice (if there is a choice at all) between face-to-face or online tuition? Perhaps the key to engagement and success for many other groups, whether non-traditional or mid-career, is as much about innovative and flexible programmes as it is about enhanced support.

To develop new products you need to take risks. You can’t necessarily rely on customer feedback to drive change; Henry Ford probably didn’t say, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” but it still rings true. Innovation can be bloody and costly, so new projects are easier if the risk is shared – and the lessons learned can be universal. It is hard to argue that students are drawn to universities that largely recruit locally by the uniqueness of their programmes. There is tremendous scope for collaboration among clusters of universities, particularly those not in direct competition for students. This is especially true for online programmes, which can be location-independent.

Repetition of effort applies equally to professional services. We in the UK don’t need to do things in 130 different handspun ways. There is a lot of sharing of good practice with professional colleagues in other institutions, but often there is wariness, too – as if we might be divulging confidential information and thereby losing our competitive advantage. If you have discovered the philosopher’s stone that rejuvenates students about to withdraw and turns them into potential 2:1s, your currency will be devalued in the TEF if you share the secret too widely.

If I were a v-c, I don’t think I could put my university’s ranking (and my own job) at risk in the interests of a more flexible system for all students three or more years down the line. This suggests to me that we need something more than a system that seeks to foster competition while at the same time tightening regulation. If we need a regulator, we also need a facilitator – particularly as, whatever the outcome of the government’s higher education review, the bills will be passed to future generations of students.

Nick Bevan is director of library and student support and pro vice-chancellor at Middlesex University.

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Reader's comments (1)

One of the disorienting things I have discovered when in dialogue with some university managers is that you can start out thinking you are in full agreement, only to be derailed by a rather large deviation from observable reality. While finding myself in agreement over his critique of league tables and wish for more cooperation between universities, this was the point of disjunction for me: "why do we think that everyone is best served by, for example, a single academic calendar that starts in the autumn, a standardised lecturer contract, a single exam period each year, a selection of modules limited to a single institution and a binary choice (if there is a choice at all) between face-to-face or online tuition? " I wondered at first if the author was unfamiliar with UK universities as clearly each of these propositions can be easily falsified. Firstly, there are now quite a few university courses which start at different points in the year. Coventry University, for example, has September, January and May entry points. Secondly, there are many staff working in universities who can only dream of having a standardised lecturer contract; instead they find themselves on insecure, temporary or zero-hours contracts and Times Higher regularly runs stories reflecting this. Thirdly, most institutions which organise their curriculum on a semester basis will have examinations at least twice a year. Most include a third exam period for resubmission of failed or non-submitted work. Fourthly, the arrival of franchise agreements mean that the same module can be delivered by what are effectively different institutions. And lastly, it is astonishing that Bevan has yet to encounter the world of MOOCS, online learning and blended learning which all sit productively alongside more traditional classroom formats. Universities are risk averse only because the consequences for alienating students have become so perilous. Out of necessity, they have consulted students and adjusted provision to reflect feedback. I would have hoped that a pro vice-chancellor might have noticed that there is a great deal of difference between designing degree courses and designing New Ford cars. Liz Morrish Nottingham