Last week saw the publication of The Guardian university league tables, which are compiled by my colleague at Kingston the meticulous Matt Hiely-Rayner. The Guardian league tables are prized in the sector, partly because lots of academics read The Guardian, but mostly because they only take account of measures related to teaching quality.
The stand out performance in the 2015-16 ranking of UK universities is that of Coventry University, which moved up from 27th place the previous year to the nose-bleed inducing heights of 15th. Coventry, the one time parish of HEFCE Chief Executive Madeleine Atkins, where she was vice chancellor from 2004-2013, now out-performs 15 members of the Russell Group, according to the table’s criteria.
The Russell Group describes itself as an association of ’24 leading universities’ and has been synonymous in recent HE speak with the idea of ‘elite’ institutions and the UK’s ‘better’ universities. They are often thought of, including by their own staff, as a self-serving lot whose lobbying line around research funding usually takes the form of ‘what resource we have is ours and what resource you have is ours as well’.
However, if we are to put any store by The Guardian’s statistical measures (a four year rolling average of HESA, NSS and DEHLE data) then the established landscape of mission group dominance may be loosening up. The aspirational Lancaster and Loughborough outperform UCL, Birmingham and Edinburgh in the most recent table, while Herriot Watt, Falmouth, Aston, Robert Gordon, and Portsmouth all earn honourable mentions in the top 50.
On paper, Coventry looks relatively uncompetitive on ‘spend per student’ and entry tariffs, but they have clearly achieved their position on the back of an excellent performance in the NSS.
Any vice chancellor will cherish the league table that places their own institution in the best possible light. The Complete University Guide for 2016, which takes account of research performance, puts Coventry at a still respectable 48th, but behind every member of the Russell Group and after both City and Herriot Watt.
Those near the lower echelons of the league tables will tell you that such indexes do not matter, that they are invented to sell newspapers, or, that they fail to include genuinely significant metrics. For example, what would a league table look like that privileged access data and BME attainment?
However, ever since the Major government in 1994 first published GCSE exam results by school in the form of a league table, the idea of the competitive index has secured a decisive role in the psychic space of UK education, and academics in all institutions do care about them, regardless of what they say in public.
There are two ways you can think about this. Either, worrying disproportionately about league table positions is a sign of a higher education sector set against itself by a divisive and acquisitive set of values foreign to intellectual life and driven by a marketised agenda that skews institutional priorities and seeks to re-establish class privilege at the level of university ranking.
Or, league tables merely formalise existing metrics to inform the public, who pay for universities, about relative performance in an already highly competitive, world leading industry, the ranking of which is intrinsic to the idea of a propositional good, which defines the value of a university degree.
As an arbitrary composite of un-nuanced data, they are perhaps really only useful to the sector as one piece of management information amongst others to be taken into account during the more slippery exercise of academic judgment, which can never be reduced to an easy arithmetic calculation.
Fans of league tables will point to the success of Coventry and others as evidence that a spirit of competition encourages rather than hinders the disruption of historical hierarchies in the sector. League tables, unlike mission groups, are by definition meritocratic, promotion is always possible if you learn how to play the game.
If the history of universities in the UK is thought of as a 24 hour clock, starting with the foundation of Oxford as midnight, then mission groups and league tables only make an appearance at 11.20pm. By the same measure, the Universities of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield only pop up after the watershed at 9.00pm. In so far as league tables and mission groups are relatively new phenomena their long term effects or benefits are as yet hard to judge.
Equally, as a late entrant to academic history they might look to some like a belated attempt to reassert long-term privileges in an increasingly diverse and ever fragmenting field. It is not surprising that with the challenge to hierarchy comes resistance to that challenge. Perhaps, this is the paradox of universities as part of a modern speculative economy: the contest between the aspiration of an emerging middle class of institutions and the conservation of the historic privilege of an academic aristocracy. History tells us that this dialectic does not necessarily end well for the aristocrats, even if new formations of the ‘elite’ soon emerge.
The Russell Group is not NATO or the European Union; they will not be rushing to expand their membership for aspirants. The point of an exclusive club is that it is select. That is how desire works, and how league table envy enters into the world. In this sense, desire is irrational; the heart of a vice chancellor wants what the heart of a vice chancellor wants, irrespective of the evidence of HESA metrics.
It is certainly strange that so many institutional strategies are set up in relation to the contingent and perverse logic of league table position, as if a university and its specific mission will not last beyond the next 12 months. At this time of year pundits on Match of the Day are fond of saying that ‘the league table does not lie’. The latest Guardian results, however you want to interpret them, might suggest that sometimes the crude calculation of an HE league table is not beyond offering misleading information.