16 September 2010
Like them or loathe them, says former National Union of Students president Wes Streeting, rankings can benefit students as institutions look to boost their standing
There are delicious ironies to be found in vice- chancellors' attitudes towards rankings and league tables. On the one hand, they deride them as reductive and engage in endless debates about how they are weighted, while on the other, they allow them to dictate their institutional strategies. And perhaps for good reason: league tables matter to applicants and employers.
The world has moved on since I completed my university application in October 2000. Whereas I spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by dozens of prospectuses I had ordered over the telephone or collected at admissions fairs, today information about courses can be found in seconds at the click of a button.
University websites have replaced the prospectus as the key marketing tool; the UK Unistats website offers an array of information about student satisfaction, teaching quality and career prospects; and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service site allows applicants to click and compare course and subject profiles for pretty much every course at every institution.
In the face of all this, league tables have remained a staple in the diet of every applicant. The only major development is that there are now more league tables than ever; so many, in fact, that virtually every institution in Britain can find itself at the top of at least one of them — usually the league table emblazoned in big, bold lettering on their advertisements.
But are rankings really useful? Research published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2008 found that the measures used in the tables can serve as poor indicators, determined largely by the availability of data rather than clear definitions of quality, and sometimes producing non-standardised results.
Nonetheless, the same report not only found league tables to be influential in institutional decision-making, but discovered that some institutions go so far as to use their rankings as key performance indicators. If league tables are not necessarily accurate indicators of quality, they are certainly the key currency in valuing institutional prestige.
This is increasingly important for those universities operating in an ever more competitive global marketplace. In spite of the detrimental impact of immigration policy under two successive governments, UK universities and a growing number of colleges strive ever harder to attract students from overseas because of the huge contribution they make to the academic and financial health of our institutions.
For overseas students, rankings, particularly international ones, are a key factor in choosing their destinations. It was telling that of the five league tables evaluated by Hefce in its research, two were international in focus, including the previous incarnation of the rankings.
For student representatives more so than students, the use of rankings presents a dilemma: on one hand they represent the view of higher education as a commodity and the framework associated with variable tuition fees designed by policymakers to encourage students to behave more like consumers.
On the other, because league tables have an impact on institutional strategy, they can be deployed as powerful tools to drive improvement in areas that students care about.
This dilemma was reflected in a motion submitted to the National Union of Students' annual conference earlier this year by the students' unions of the University of Edinburgh and the University of East London. It encouraged the NUS to look at the feasibility of producing its own "student-experience league table". Australia's National Union of Students has produced its own rankings for some time and reports significant effects, not least since one of the criteria is the size of students' union block grants.
Like them or loathe them, rankings are here to stay in terms of presence and influence.
These new THE World University Rankings will no doubt generate headlines and ever more serious debate among university leaders about how to move their institutions higher up the table next year. Students' unions can either abstain on principle or use them to shape institutions' strategies to their own advantage. Students have been doing the latter for years.
Wes Streeting is a former president of the UK's National Union of Students