Rankings should take account of wider missions

Call to boost ‘simplistic’ league tables via US-style analysis of diverse missions. Jack Grove writes

September 18, 2014

“Simplistic” league tables should be accompanied by a US-style classification system that reflects universities’ different areas of strength, a rankings expert has argued.

Bernard Longden, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, believes that the UK should set up its own version of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education used in the US to group universities and colleges according to criteria such as research activity, postgraduate student intake and subject mix.

Run by the charitable Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the classification was launched in 1973 and is updated every few years.

Professor Longden, who has published several papers on institutional rankings, believes that such a system would enable UK universities serving poorer students to demonstrate their excellence in fields other than research, currently the greatest determinant of an institution’s league table position.

“Newer universities do not stand a chance if their performance is judged on research. Older universities always do better on research, as they do on reputation thanks to their longer history,” he said, and called for a Carnegie-style analysis of institutions and their performance based on student type, subject mix and populations they serve.

Comparisons of institutions within mission groups, such as the Russell Group or University Alliance, were not helpful because some universities do not join groups for financial or strategic reasons, he added. “As a university leader, you want a way to benchmark against other comparable institutions and Carnegie lets you do this.”

Professor Longden, a past chairman of the European Association of Institutional Research, said existing initiatives to create more nuanced and interactive comparisons do not offer what Carnegie does.

He said the European Union-backed U-Multirank, which lets students choose their own categories to compare, was flawed because users did not understand the data, which he believed were questionable.

Professor Longden is to present his argument at a higher education conference on 25 September at the University of West London on the work of his former colleague Roger Brown, a leading critic of university marketisation who recently retired from Liverpool Hope.

Joelle Fanghanel, the conference organiser and director of West London’s Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning, said Professor Brown’s criticisms need revisiting.

“We cannot ignore marketisation but we want to see if we can strike a balance between higher education as a public good and a marketplace,” she said.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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