Accessibility navigation

Vice-Chancellor: How league tables can reflect our ambitions

Robert Van de Noort

A few weeks ago, I reflected on the role of rankings in higher education, following the release of this year’s Complete University Guide results. Then on Friday last week, we received the disappointing news that we have dropped 22 places in the Guardian University Guide 2020 – falling from 46 to 68. The Guardian rankings are one of the more high-profile domestic league tables, focusing particularly on student experience, and this result comes at a critical time as prospective students prepare to make final decisions about where to study this autumn.

There are some bright spots – at subject level, we saw moderate increases in the Business, Management & Marketing and Design & Crafts categories and, very pleasingly, our result for continuation (a new measure introduced by the Guardian last year of the proportion of students completing their degree) is also up. I would like to thank those colleagues who have played their part in delivering these results. Digging into the data, however, shows a consistent message – we are simply not doing well enough across the board to match the expectations of students.

People level a number of criticisms at rankings, and as I’ve said previously, they are not a perfect measure of an institution’s achievements. It is also true that they fluctuate from year to year, as underlying measures change. Given the 25% weighting of our NSS results in the Guardian methodology, it could be tempting to suggest that this explains our decline, and in particular the impact on student satisfaction of the disruption while we’ve refurbished the Library.

But we are short-changing ourselves, and our students, if we do not take a serious look at the full range of factors underlying this year’s drop. Student satisfaction with feedback is a notable area of decline as is overall course satisfaction. Nor do we exist in a vacuum. Even where we have remained static – or achieved small gains – they are not necessarily keeping pace with sector-wide improvements, and certainly not when compared with Top 50 institutions.

Undoubtedly, some of this is the result, directly and indirectly, of decisions taken by the University leadership – including, but not limited to, the financial necessity to recruit students in greater numbers. I have had a role in those decisions and I do not shy away from that. Indeed, it places a premium on getting our strategy redevelopment right. But as with NSS results, this is not the whole picture. We rise and fall as a community, and there are things for which each and every one of us can take responsibility that will have an impact on our rankings. The strategy must make clear how we all can play a role, collectively and individually. Action to improve all aspects of our operation is not an optional ‘add-on’ to the day job, because our priorities of providing excellent education and building a strong community have a very real impact on our students’ lives now, and their life chances after their degree is completed.

So while we are currently working through the strategy development process, there are things that we can do right now to support colleagues and current and prospective students in the coming weeks. This includes getting behind Open Days, clearing and other recruitment activity, supporting research and impact activity, and helping deliver the best possible experience at Graduation.

I reiterate the point I’ve made before that we should not just chase the rankings. That would be short-sighted and, I believe, ultimately futile. But it remains my firm belief that a focus on excellence in all we do will deliver not just the best results, but ultimately be reflected in rankings outcomes. This is not theoretical debate – it has real-world implications for our students and the future of our university.

Page navigation

Search Form

Main navigation