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Vice-Chancellor: League tables and embracing 'excellence'

colour portrait photograph of Vice Chancellor Robert Van der Noort

The annual round of university league tables can be, for those who work in higher education, a boringly predictable event. Reports tend to focus on the battle for top spot between Oxford and Cambridge; who is up and who is down; and where UK institutions are faring against their international rivals. 

League tables are not perfect. They cannot and do not claim to measure accurately all the qualities of a set of complex and disparate institutions. Yet despite their limitations, we should not ignore them. As many of us tell our students, all models are wrong – but some are useful.

Governments certainly find rankings useful. The proportion of our best quality research, as assessed through REF, will be used to portion out our share of billions of pounds of UK government research funding. The assessment of teaching (TEF), while not linked directly to funding, is made up of metrics that are also used in many of the independently-produced league tables. And those rankings, including the growing list of THE and QS world rankings, and Guardian, Times and Complete ranking of UK universities, are used as a proxy measure of quality by prospective students, funders, and potential research and business partners. Some foreign governments even use global Top 200 status as a condition of state scholarships for international study.

It is possible cherry-pick strengths from most results. The publication of the Complete University Guide 2020 in April shows, on face value, that Reading has gone down to 40th (from 32 last year, and 27 the year before) out of the 131 institutions ranked. But there are good stories to tell around individual courses – showing how well we fare against competitors in subjects such as Agriculture and the Built Environment, for example. And overall the data indicates that Reading has consistently been ranked by CUG at around 35; and that only small changes of institutions above and below appear to translate into major swings of fortune.

In reality, though, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t claim league tables as a useful indicator when we’re moving up but ignore them or question their validity if we don’t like the result. While understandable, this approach lacks a coherent, long-term view. It also makes us a hostage to fortune, suggesting that leagues tables are somehow external events that happen to us, over which we have no control. In truth, the results reflect a range of factors that we can directly influence.

We should never make changes to what we do just for the benefit of rankings compilers. It would be perverse, for example, to award more Firsts or 2:1s because it leads to a higher score in one league table or another. But we should learn lessons from rankings analysis and use these to make necessary and meaningful improvements in the pursuit of excellence. As I have said previously, I believe a focus on quality and excellence is the key. Whether we like it or not, because league tables are used by many prospective students when they apply to universities, league table performance has to be part of our planning.

Like them or loathe them, league tables are here to stay. Other institutions have acknowledged this already, and benefited from a more mature response. By taking a principled approach based on excellence, I believe we can learn the same important lesson.

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