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Out of our league?

Tomorrow a sellout sellout

The distribution of all the securities in a new issue by the selling group.
 conference will engage in that favourite academic blood sport: criticising newspaper league tables. As one of the guilty men on the wanted list, I should declare an interest. (I will be there and, yes, will be wearing a flak jacket flak jacket
A bulletproof jacket or vest.

flak jacket

a reinforced sleeveless jacket for protection against gunfire or shrapnel

Around 150 well-informed people - senior university planning officers and the like - will come to the Universities UK conference armed with an exhaustive report on league tables, published last week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is a non-departmental public body of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (previously the Department for Education and Skills) in the United Kingdom which distributes funding to Universities and  (Hefce). The title, Counting What Is Measured or Measuring What Counts?, gives some idea of the approach.

With a 64-page report backed up by seven chunky chunk·y  
adj. chunk·i·er, chunk·i·est
1. Short and thick; stocky.

2. Containing small thick pieces: chunky peanut butter; chunky soup.
 appendices ap·pen·di·ces  
A plural of appendix.
, you might think the last word on the subject had been said; but there is one striking omission: there's no ranking of the five newspaper league tables analysed - the Guardian, Times, Sunday Times and two international ones, from the Times Higher Education higher education

Study beyond the level of secondary education. Institutions of higher education include not only colleges and universities but also professional schools in such fields as law, theology, medicine, business, music, and art.
 magazine and Shanghai Jiao Tong University Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Simplified Chinese: 上海交通大学; Traditional Chinese: 上海交通大學 .

This is deliberate. Hefce's brief to the Open University's Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (Cheri) and Hobsons Research was to avoid endorsing one set of rankings as "official". I might feel the authors' enthusiasm for interactive tables - a feature of the Guardian's online tables since their inception - suggests approval, but they couldn't possibly comment.

This determination by UK universities to hold their noses when approaching league tables contrasts with what has happened in Germany, where the universities themselves dictated the rules of the game by evolving their own (interactive) rankings, which are published by Die Zeit DIE ZEIT (pronounced /diː tsait/, in English, literally The Time, more idiomatically The Times) is a German nationwide weekly newspaper that is highly respected for its quality journalism. . The Hefce report notes that the German rankings combine subjective data such as student feedback with objective data such as student/staff ratios or the average number of years to complete a degree.

In Australia, too, the government has engineered league tables it is happy with by offering funding for good teaching that universities had to compete for.

That's not going to happen in England. David Eastwood Professor David Eastwood is the current Chief Executive of HEFCE, since 1 September 2006. Prior to this, he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UEA). , Hefce's chief executive, told his annual conference at Warwick University last week that the funding council Funding Council may refer to:
  • Higher Education Funding Council for England, a public body of the Department for Education and Skills in the United Kingdom
  • Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, an intermediary body in Wales
 had no intention of producing authoritative league tables. The point of commissioning the Cheri research was to launch and frame a debate on improving existing tables and how they are used - especially by university governors.

Eastwood was also concerned about universities altering their policies in an attempt to climb the league tables, and the report will have confirmed his fears. It found that vice-chancellors were often under intense pressure from their governors to move up the league tables at the cost of other objectives, such as widening access to students from poor families. Concerns about the impact on governors also surfaced at the Hefce conference. One vice-chancellor said he had arranged a day's seminar for his governors on league tables; after which they decided not to use them to set strategic objectives.

At one post-1992 university, which did badly in league tables, the researchers found that although senior managers criticised them as "irrational" and based on Oxbridge models, the governors set an institutional key performance indicator of improving the league-table position.

One university in the Russell Group The Russell Group is a collaboration of twenty British universities that receive two-thirds of UK universities' research grant and contract funding[1]. It was established in 1994 to represent their interests to the Government, Parliament and other similar bodies.  of large, research-intensive institutions - which was consistently near the top of national tables and in the top 30 of the world rankings - set up a league-tables working group when some departments did less well in subject rankings.

"League tables are seen as encouraging 'gaming'," noted the report - and, in a wonderful euphemism eu·phe·mism  
The act or an example of substituting a mild, indirect, or vague term for one considered harsh, blunt, or offensive: "Euphemisms such as 'slumber room' . . .
, said institutions were "over-engineering" their data submissions to the Higher Education Statistics Agency The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) was established in 1993 by the UK higher education institutions as the central source for the collection and publication of higher education statistics in the United Kingdom. , the official body from whom newspapers buy data for their league tables.

This pressure is likely to increase if tuition fees in England rise after 2009.

"It is possible that ranking position will affect an institution's ability to charge the highest fees across all its courses," noted the report.

"The influence of league tables is increasing both nationally and internationally, and cannot be ignored despite serious methodological limitations," added the authors William Locke and Line Verbik, who complained that there was not enough transparency about the way the tables were compiled. "The resulting rankings largely reflect reputational factors and not necessarily the quality or performance of institutions."

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, urged Hefce to go on the offensive over league tables. "Given the amount of damage these league tables are doing to UK higher education ... isn't it time that the funding council took a much more robust view of exposing these commercial league tables as damaging to the UK and damaging to our overseas students."

It is presumably pre·sum·a·ble  
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition: presumable causes of the disaster.
 a quite different Les Ebdon who boasts on Bedfordshire University's website: "Our recent league table successes have also been cause for celebration. We have seen a massive 41.2% increase in applications to Ucas, the Guardian has placed us third for media and 12th for sport, we have jumped 24 places in the Times league table and our students rated us at 28th in the UK for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey."

It was left to Eastwood to point out that universities themselves were legitimising league tables by plastering plastering, house construction technique involving the application of plaster to walls and ceilings, exterior plasterwork being of a different composition and generally known as stucco.  the results on their websites.

Hefce's search for better methodologies and better understanding by users is one the Guardian is happy to engage in, and it has been for some time - through our review group, drawn from universities, for instance, which has tendered helpful, if robust, advice. So I'll be there at the conference - complete with flak jacket.
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Date:Apr 15, 2008
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