In the not so dim and distant past university league tables were created for a range of purposes – generally with the intention of helping students choose the right course and institution.
They also appeared authoritative, offered a simple ranking deemed to indicate quality, and sold newspapers and magazines. The emergence of league tables fitted the metricisation of higher education, and aligned with the emergence of similar rankings for schools. Their position has subsequently been cemented through government policies designed to create a market in higher education and redefine students as consumers. How would a market operate without a convenient ranking to inform your choice of purchase?
While league tables have become part of the HE environment, perhaps in the aftermath of Covid-19 and possible changes in government policy in 2020 it would be timely to re-evaluate the use and reliability of league tables and to question their ongoing place and purpose.
Statutory data, commercial performance
UK universities benefit from access to a wealth of high-quality data and intelligence and, as a result, autonomous universities can explore their comparative position across the full range of activities and strategise with a high degree of confidence. But this data were collected for statutory purposes.
The collections were designed to help government understand what universities are doing and, in the absence of any government analysis, league table compilers filled a space and defined what good looked like based on their selection of metrics. Since then the world has changed. Universities remain autonomous but are now regulated. The creation of TEF, REF, and KEF provides the government and the OfS with mechanisms for defining and measuring their own view of what good looks like. Should these become established, they will enable government to leverage soft power in encouraging universities in their preferred direction by promoting their own performance frameworks.
But what about the policy context, how far does it match up with what’s currently being measured by commercial league tables? Over the summer, policy announcements suggested a stronger focus on delivering skills. An opportunity perspective rather than simply widening access. Growth in regional and place-based provision aligned with employer and trades unions skills needs and expanding higher technical education. Little of this emerging policy direction is reflected in league table methodologies and this creates a tension between performance management of institutions via league tables, government created performance frameworks, and the emerging policy direction.
Beyond the macro level of policy and performance monitoring driving what universities deliver, there are the micro level realities of how data will have been affected by 2020. League tables predominantly measure volume and use this as a proxy for quality. They suggest that when ranking measures a higher value is better, research-led is best and don’t differentiate for the reality that different students have needs and/or are seeking different experiences.
That viral difference
From 2021, league tables will be compiled using data affected by Covid-19. However well universities supported their students, a very different student experience reflecting the realities of 2020 will shape NSS responses. Employability and graduate outcomes will be affected by economic circumstances and likely recession. Tariff will need to be treated with caution following the a level and GCSE results debacle and there is a strong chance that non-completions will rise due to predatory recruitment practices drawing students away from institutions offering the learning experience best for them and encouraging students to trade up to institutions deemed to offer the best product. Looking across the UK league table methodologies, this compromises the data underpinning 80 per cent of the Guardian league table, 61 per cent of the Complete University Guide, 51 per cent of the Times ranking.
And this won’t just be a problem for the league tables published next year. The longer-term impact of Covid-19 will affect measures using averages derived from multiple years of data, and will also affect KEF and TEF.
So, what place would commercial league tables have in this new landscape? Little of the policy direction proposed in the summer is reflected in their methodologies and the data on which they are based will be compromised in the aftermath of the pandemic. Maybe now is the time for government to call a halt to commercial league tables and work with the sector to assert the importance of its own performance frameworks (TEF, REF and KEF) developing them to align with policy, measure institutional quality and provide effective support for student decision-making on where to study?
They could also reflect the diversity of the sector and its value in meeting a range of student needs. Without the need to sell newspapers.