Do league tables matter?

League tables are most commonly associated with football. Everyone knows that the team who wins the most games goes up the league table. The team who finishes top at the end of the season our the league champions. Having won the league the champions may secure promotion to a higher league or entry to other competitions such as the Champions League or Europa League. And everyone knows that Partick Thistle are, on that basis, not as ‘good’ a team as Celtic, Aberdeen or Hearts. Yet I still support the Jags and think they are better for lots of different reasons.

So, what about league tables in the context of Higher Education? One of the challenges here is knowing what counts as success? It’s not as simple as scoring goals – there is research output, student satisfaction, completion rates, student-staff ratios, employability. And how highly should each of these be ranked? Each league table rates these factors to differing degrees (see here for more comparison of league tables). As well as the most well known tables, such as The Guardian and Times Higher there are also a number of alternative league tables (see here for more). So the overall picture is incredibly complex, even confusing. Hardly surprising when we consider the complex nature of public services (as I’ve written about previously).

There are many question marks around the way figures are reported and potential gaming that takes place in order for universities to increase their performance. Issues like, for example, whether those universities that score well in research are doing so at the expense of their teaching and learning – and do research active staff also engage in teaching or is this primarily delivered by lowly paid staff on causal contracts or PhD students?

Another challenge is the way in which all institutions are compared on the same metrics and in the same table. It is rather like having Partick Thistle and Real Madrid in the same league and expecting them to be equally competitive. Consider, for example, that the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583, has 6,422 academic staff, 6,458 non-academic staff, endowments of £14.4m  in 2008-09 and total income of £592m (see the Facts and Figure 2016). QMU gained full university status in 2007 (having been first established in 1875 – almost 300 years later than UoE), has a total of 251 academic staff (including researchers) and total income of £38m in 2014-15 (which is actually about half of what Cambridge University received in endowments alone in the same year) (more Facts and Figures 2016). So in terms of headcount alone University of Edinburgh has 26 times the resources that we have at QMU and yet we are expected to compete against the same metrics. To extend the football analogy it’s like playing a team of 286 players against a standard team of 11 players. In this context it might seem that university league tables are truly absurd and best ignored.

Alternatively we could consider the extent to which any one university moves in the rankings year on year. Recently QMU went down on The Guardian league table from 76th to 101st place (see the full table here). But does that mean we have got so much worse over the last twelve months? Again rather than looking at the league table as a whole it might be helpful to compare our closest competitors: Edinburgh Napier (down from 64th to 70th), Glasgow Caledonian (down from 89th to 99th) and Abertay University (up from 93rd to 85th). What this shows is that institutions do tend to move quite a lot year on year. It would seem that very small changes in some of the metrics can result in a very large shift in the league table position. So again, league tables don’t say very much.

Of course, if universities were compared on a per capita basis some of the stats might appear very different. One might ask what on earth do larger, more established universities do with £1bn of expenditure a year or with 26 times the number of staff of smaller institutions. I would argue that QMU generates a lot of benefit with a very small percentage of the income that more established universities enjoy every year. Actually, I think that we are an excellent university. I know that we punch well above our weight and that our staff are incredibly committed to the student experience. I know that we have improved significantly over the seven years that I have worked there. I know there are still things that could improve – but I know that everyone is committed to making that improvement happen.

As just one example of our commitment to the student experience our our recent staff away day focused entirely on our undergraduate provision – and three students were invited to join us for part of the day to discuss their experience. I’ve never known that to happen at any other academic staff away day. And the one common thread across the entire day was how can we improve the student experience and the employability of our graduates. Everyone believes it and everyone is committed to it.

If you want a great experience as a student I can’t promise that you’ll get it at QMU – but what I can promise is that we’ll do everything we can to make it a great experience. What’s more, I know that if you don’t have a positive experience we will ask for your feedback, we will listen AND we will take action.

But here’s the thing; if a student has a negative experience at university, or perhaps doesn’t get the degree they wanted to get, who is ultimately to blame? I actually think it’s misleading to consider the success of a university as being solely down to the performance of the staff. Actually, much of our ‘success’ as measured by league tables, is not within our control. A university is as much a collection of students as it is a group of academics, academic-related and other professional and support services staff. In this sense the analogy with football is clearly completely preposterous – with football the success is down the players on the pitch; with universities the success is as much down to the fans on the stands (the students) as it is down to the players on the pitch. And while it may be easy for football clubs to buy new players during the transfer season what can a university do if the students do not engage in the learning activities in the way that they should? Of course we can encourage students and create learning activities that students want to engage with. But failing that all we can do is award those students lower grades – which then affects our league table position.

So please tell me, what can Partick Thistle do to compete with Real Madrid. And what can WE do to compete with Cambridge?

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