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Status anxiety – how often did universities cite league tables in TEF submissions?

Wonkhe's David Kernohan has done a silly little rummage through TEF provider statements to find if citing any particular league table proved more influential than others for getting a Gold outcome.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Though I don’t share Registrarism’s morbid fascination with university league tables, I can’t help but agree that they form an important component of the way institutions see themselves.

Nick Hillman’s famous claim that thirty or forty UK universities promote themselves as being in the ‘top ten’ does not feel far off – it also has the disadvantage of being technically true given the proliferation of the things.

Table compilers – or “rankers” in the argot of the day – have already begun to analyse the differences between the three levels of TEF and the subtle gradations of their ordered lists. But taking the view that the primary consumers of league tables are vice chancellors with status anxiety, I thought I’d take a look at the number of institutions that mentioned our favourite ones in their TEF provider statements. When the comfort blanket of status is threatened – which affirming tables do our institutional leaders reach for?

I wasn’t expecting to find a close correlation between league table mentions and TEF award levels, which made it doubly surprising to find one. I can state with certainty that institutions referring to the Times/Sunday Times ‘Good University Guide’ got Silver or Gold awards in 96.9% of occasions (though, past performance is not a predictor of future benefits).

% G22.2%29.4%32.8%53.1%27.8%
% S66.7%56.9%53.4%43.8%50%
% B11.1%13.7%13.8%3.1%22.2%

(a note on methodology, these figures were developed by searching for specific terms related to each league table and removing duplicates. I am obviously not asserting causality with my comments about The Times/Sunday Times).

As regards individual institutions, top marks go to Bradford and Durham, both of which referred to all five of the league tables I examined. Swansea (44th in CUG) and Bristol (17th in CUG) omitted only the Complete University Guide, Warwick (82nd in the TEF Global list) chose not to use any of the numerous Times Higher Education tables as a reference.

You would imagine that where institutions refer to only one table, they would choose the the one in which they are placed highest – but this does not appear to be the case.

Looking at institutions that mentioned only the Guardian table, Leeds Trinity, Buckinghamshire New, and Queen Mary were all ranked higher in one or both of the CUG and the Times. Meanwhile Surrey, Bolton, City, West London and Nottingham all chose to cite the Times league table despite it demonstrating their weakest performance.

So why would you do that? Well, for the same reason someone would do anything with league tables – confusing status and history with excellence and value. The Complete University Guide league table is perfectly respectable as these things go, but somehow the perception of the tables has gotten mixed up with perception of the prestige of the Guardian, and Times (and to a certain extent THE…) – websites that your common-or-garden vice chancellor look at several times a day.

But the general approach of ‘pick the one you did best in’ demonstrates the essentially arbitrary nature of such tables and balance raw metrics (which, for all of the issues, TEF primarily relies on) with the intangibles of a ‘good’ university. As Steely Dan once remarked, “They got a name for the winners in the world/ And I want a name when I lose”.

Even as TEF results gradually make their way into the league tables, marketers will still be able to make the ‘Top x’ claims that litter that institutional websites, though I imagine space advertising a TEF Bronze award will be harder to find.

2 responses to “Status anxiety – how often did universities cite league tables in TEF submissions?

  1. Nobody is as morbidly obsessed with league tables as Registrarism – although Wonkhe readers do benefit from his musings (and now yours)

  2. Interesting that Warwick don’t mention rankings – I’ve always wondered whether the tradition that Warwick always appears in the top 10 had lied to some manipulated days in recent years…

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