Reviled or regarded, league tables will continue while there are marketing directors desperate for something to spin about their university.
But Kyle Grayson (UK’s Newcastle U) and J Paul Grayson (York U, Toronto) suggest that the data that rankings are based on could put to good use in guiding student choice in other ways.
Writing in Quality in Higher Education, they analyse UK rankings pitched at prospective students that use performance stats to create scores – for whatever they are worth.
“Were a student judging the quality of a university by the satisfaction of students, they might choose a university in the high satisfaction column. Should they, for whatever reason, select from the low cluster, a relatively satisfying experience would still be likely,” they write.
They also examine the seven-yearly Research Excellence Framework for universities and how its results are included in rankings to reach a similar consumer conclusion, “there are differences amongst UK universities, however this dissimilarity is not synonymous with potential quality differences as potentially viewed by different stakeholders.”
And they argue against assessing universities by “mission group.” “It is not readily apparent that one cluster is superior to another as might be assumed from hierarchical league table placement or from self-enhancing promotional efforts put forth by universities.”
And so they conclude there is no hierarchy of quality, rather UK universities exist in clusters based on student satisfaction, research and what it costs – and these are the criteria to compare like with like. Setting this out would allow prospective students to compare institutions on the characteristics that matter to them, rather than being presented with an effectively meaningless set of top to bottom lists.
The implication for students, the media, government and universities is straightforward, they suggest. “There are differences amongst UK universities; however, this dissimilarity is not synonymous with potential quality differences as potentially viewed by different stakeholders.”