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OpinionPanel – It’s time to challenge university league tables April 19, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education.
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http://www.opinionpanel.co.uk/community/2012/04/10/its-time-to-challenge-university-league-tables/

The world of information, advice and guidance for prospective students entering higher education is a complex one. Some students are born into environments where access to both information and, crucially, to advice and guidance is abundant. Others are fortunate to have schools or supporters to guide them through. However, many are still left to navigate an often unfamiliar environment alone and without crucial context to help inform and shape their decision making. Many of those students may well end up making decisions they could later regret, with an accompanying price tag that won’t exactly cushion the blow. The axing of AimHigher and the hands-off approach from the Department of Education towards career guidance in schools is only likely to make the problem worse.

Photo by Procsilas Moscas

Central to the information landscape are league tables. Yet, as I see it, very little is done to challenge their obviously gaping flaws. Practically all of the broadsheet newspapers turn their hand to league tables at some point in the calendar year, with universities quick to pounce on the table which places them highest as the “most authoritative”. Yet I’d argue that for many students, perhaps even the majority, all newspaper league tables are largely redundant, and frankly don’t give any indication of many of the crucial elements that students are really interested in; such as the quality of teaching, access to work experience and curriculum content.

Of course the simplicity of league tables, the fact that universities can be boiled down to a single digit, then placed in a rank order, is on the surface at least quite appealing. Prospective students can be duped into thinking that the university ranked 43rd is somehow better than the university ranked 51st, but in reality of course there is a very good chance that the ‘lower’ ranked university may well be more suitable for huge swathes of students.

So my major problem with university league tables boils down to two central arguments. The first is that the methodology which underpins most league tables is horridly out of sync with what undergraduate students in particular care about. The second is that whilst university league tables continue to be published with a simple rank order the ability for students to determine which factors are most important to them (e.g. employability scores, staff-student ratios etc.) are usually overlooked, which means that students are forced to judge universities on the factors which The Guardian or Sunday Times considers to be important, and not what the student her/himself cares about.

At the heart of the concerns about methodology, I am of the opinion that most league table compilers feel restrained by pulling together a methodology which ensures the same universities finish in roughly the same positions every year. The prospect that Cambridge or Oxford Universities wouldn’t finish in the top 2 positions is too horrific a thought for league table compilers to contemplate, so the metrics end up being heavily weighted toward ensuring this just ends up happening year after year. Convention suggests that they are the top two universities, and the Russell Group (24 of the most research intensive universities) are somehow the best universities, so rather than worry about having their own methodology questioned, it seems to me that newspapers retreat to a convenient set of metrics which mean that Oxbridge occupy the top 2 spots, and most of the Russell Groups universities are somewhere in the top 35. Employers also fuel the vicious cycle by largely focussing their recruitment efforts on the same narrow group of universities, whilst simultaneously complaining that many graduates don’t arrive with the skills they want. But whilst many of the big employers still confine themselves to a narrow group of universities it will continue to mean those are the universities which will continue to benefit from inflated employment scores. Employers might actually find that there are graduates from other universities which are just as adept, perhaps even more so given the more business-focussed curriculum that often exists in those institutions. But whilst many employers continue to screen out graduates from outside certain universities, they won’t ever know whether they are better or worse than what they are getting at present.

But in my criticism of the methodology of league tables I want to question why such a weighting is placed on the research output of universities. The role of research in universities is crucial, but frankly it doesn’t have the disproportionate bearing on the undergraduate experience that most league tables lend it in their weightings. In fact you could argue that the more research intensive a university, the less emphasis is placed on the undergraduate experience and teaching. However, could it simply be that newspapers know that by playing the research funding game, the 24 Russell Group universities who scoop around 75% of the total research income will comfortably take slots in the top 30? Our newspapers can then breathe a sigh of relief, knowing their rank order ‘looks about right’. It surely can’t be because these institutions provide the best teaching, the most work experience opportunities, the opportunities to participate in a range of assessment methods or add most educational value to their students – because in the main these are not the universities that do that.

So do most undergraduate students really agree that Oxbridge, or indeed the Russell Group more generally, are really the best universities? According to lots of measures that exist, the majority of students actually have concerns about our so-called ‘top ranking’ universities. From student satisfaction (many Russell Group universities are ranked in the bottom quartile on this measure) to value added (the extent to which a university adds to your educational performance during your years of study) these universities actually perform very poorly.

So rather than newspapers seeking to dictate what they consider to be the most important facets of a university, I’d like to see more effort placed into providing personalised advice and guidance to individual applicants to work out which university is best for them. There is nothing wrong with saying that a post-92 university is better for some students, and a research intensive environment better for others – but let’s get comfortable with that, and stop the pretence that we should be judging all universities along the same lines. For those actively wishing to benefit from a research environment it may well be Oxbridge or the Russell Group, but for a more employer-focussed curriculum or educational value added it is likely to be somewhere else, and I don’t think that summing up a university as a simple digit does anyone any favours!

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Thu 20 Oct – Guardian HE Network – Cambridge University chancellorship and Reading University: first or fail? October 20, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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Cambridge University chancellorship and Reading University: first or fail?

New leadership comes under the spotlight this week as Aaron Porter gives his verdict on Reading’s new vice chancellor and the Cambridge University chancellorship candidates

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/oct/20/cambridge-university-chancellor-contest

Brian Blessed

Ahead of Brian Blessed and Abdul Arain, Lord Sainsbury was voted Cambridge University’s new chancellor. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Heading for a First… Reading University and Sir David Bell

This week Reading University announced the appointment of senior civil servant Sir David Bell as its new vice-chancellor. Bell’s career is almost the definition of ‘meteoric rise’. He started as a teacher in Glasgow, went on to become a headteacher, before rising to national prominence as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and then into the civil service as the permanent secretary in the Department for Education.

Born in Glasgow, reading history and philosophy at his home city’s university, he then went onto obtain a PGCE at Jordanhill College of Education. His direct experience at schools in Glasgow and Essex and as assistant director of Education at Newcastle City Council clearly gives him in a genuine education background. Not to mention his subsequent experience as the chief inspector of schools and then in government.

As universities are increasingly grappling with the implications of the White Paper, and their link up with business, it’s vital that their core purpose as educational establishments is not lost. For those who have met him, Sir David is an impressive individual, with an obvious passion for what education can do to transform an individual’s life.

He strikes me as a man who can breathe new life into Reading University, ensure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century, but without losing sight of why the institution exists. I also can’t help but think, he’s chosen a very wise time to stop working for Michael Gove…

Heading for a Fail… Abdul Arain

Notable previous chancellors of Cambridge University have included Thomas Cromwell, Prince Albert, and Stanley Baldwin, and since 1976 the honour has been bestowed upon the Duke of Edinburgh. Of course while the role is largely ceremonial, cutting ribbons and shaking hands at degree congregations, there is a perception at least that this person is a figure head for the institution. And in some respects, a role model for prospective and current students.

So when an election was called to replace Prince Philip earlier this year, there was a faint hope that the result may deliver something other the usual line up of noble lords, dukes, or relatives of the monarch who generally hold the post. Who knows, perhaps the first woman may have been chosen to break the monotony of man after man since 1246. But given some of the rather ancient rules at Cambridge University, I’ve no idea whether a woman is even allowed to hold the role. Even if they are permitted, 800 years of history suggests the culture won’t permit it yet.

However the line up of candidates, although all men, was at least drawn from a variety of backgrounds. It was made pretty clear, that the preferred choice from the university hierarchy was Lord Sainsbury, the former chair of the supermarket giant and a significant donor to the institution. Up against him were the loud-mouthed actor Brian Blessed, high profile QC Michael Mansfield, and Nariobi-born grocer Abdul Arain. Running a classic protest vote campaign, Arain’s candidacy was two-fold; to show that Cambridge University really is open to people from non-traditional backgrounds, and perhaps more pertinently to him, to highlight the damage a new chain of Sainsburys in the city will do to local stores like his own.

Sadly Arain came last when the results were announced, but he secured a creditable 312 in the final tally. Despite some ill-feeling from a minority toward Lord Sainsbury, in truth he sailed through securing nearly 3000 of the 5888 votes that were cast. By weighing in with more than 50% of the vote in the first round, it didn’t even matter whether it was first past the post, or a more elaborate transferable voting system.

So Cambridge University may not have taken the chance to break with tradition of choosing someone outside the established hierarchy or heaven forbid a woman. But Arain’s candidacy did at least raise a valid debate, if only temporarily.

Thur 14th July: Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: The Treasury and Office for Fair Access July 14, 2011

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Aaron Porter’s First or Fail: The Treasury and Office for Fair Access

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jul/13/office-for-fair-access-treasury

This week, Aaron Porter examines Offa’s quick work on access agreements and the Treasury’s dashed hopes for average fees

Baby Black Hole

Heading for a budget black hole? Aaron Porter says rough estimates suggest the Treasury could be facing £600m shortfall. Photograph: AP/NASA

Aaron Porter gives his verdict on the good (heading for a first) and the bad (heading for a fail) this week.

Heading for a first: Office for Fair Access (Offa)

It was Mission Impossible. For what would normally take months, but had to be just weeks because of the Government’s rushed higher education funding policy, the Office for Fair Access miraculously managed to sign off the full complement of access agreements this week, for institutions wishing to charge more than £6,000 a year from September 2012, on time and on schedule.

Rather than simply getting the agreements signed off on time and constrained by their existing powers, Offa truly deserves recognition for seeking out a significantly increased outlay from institutions to support the poorest students, but for doing so in the eye of a political storm. Total access agreement funding will be £602m by 2015-16, the first year with three cohorts of the new fee regime students, compared with £407m in 2011-12.

But almost as soon as the government had announced that the upper cap would be set at £9,000 back in November, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable took to the airwaves promising it would only be “in exceptional circumstances”. Nick Clegg even went to Cambridge University to “promise” – a word he should learn to use carefully – that universities would be prevented from charging the maximum unless “they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going”.

Sadly, this was another Clegg promise which showed a complete lack of understanding for the context in which he was operating, this time misunderstanding the role and remit of the office – which is an access regulator, not a price regulator. You’d have thought that the clue was in the title, but then again the deputy prime minister doesn’t have the best track record of twigging things that seem blindingly obvious to everyone else.

However, for as well as Offa has done in the circumstances, its role and remit won’t suffice in the new fees regime. The government needs to stick to what it set out in the white paper and afford new powers to the regulator, and when the new Offa director is appointed later this year, his or her first task will be to give the organisation some teeth and start to measure institutions on their impact and results, not on self-imposed targets.

Heading for a fail: the Treasury

If Offa had a good week, then, sadly, the Treasury had a bad one. For as the ink dried on the access agreements, the dim and distant pipe dream that the average fee would be £7,500 (as Treasury figures assume) were banished once and for all. The Offa analysis shows the average fee is £8,393, which comes down to £8,161 once fee waivers are taken into account. That makes a whopping £616 off per student. It might not sound much, but rough estimates suggest this could lead to a budget black hole of as much as £600m.

This is a big headache for the Treasury, given it has already subjected the higher education budget to the biggest cut in its history over the next four years. With public teaching funds for the arts, humanities and social sciences already gone, it isn’t obvious what the Treasury will do next.

David Willetts has rightly stated his intention to see student numbers grow, and it is surely unthinkable to look at the remaining teaching budget largely concentrated on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), or the widening participation premium which would surely be politically unpalatable to touch.

It almost borders on a conspiracy theory, but perhaps David Willetts knew all along that the average fee would be higher than £7,500, and this far down the road would now be impossible for the Treasury to cut further. Time will tell.