European Union university ranking plan: the sector holds its breath

Latest news on the most eagerly awaited league table

A post just over a year ago noted the development of a new EU ranking method. Now University World News carries a piece about the European Union defying criticism of its university ranking plan. Speaking at a rankings event in April Jordi Curell, director of lifelong learning, higher education and international affairs, did accept that not everyone was wildly enthisastic about the U-Multirank non-league table. But he did attempt to defend the idea:

“Rankings which are carefully thought out are the only transparency tools which can give a comparative picture of higher education institutions at a national, European and global level,” he told the symposium.

In March the UK House of Lords’ European Union committee called the initiative a waste of money. Its report argued that U-Multirank brought nothing new to a market already crowded by other international ranking systems, such as those developed by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Times Higher Education magazine and QS.

But Brussels plans to plough ahead regardless.

Earlier this year the Commission announced that it would spend €4 million (US$5.2 million) testing its new ranking method and invited HEIs to tender for the work with the results due at the end of next year.

Curell told the symposium that generally, a reluctance to support rankings had evolved. But while they might not reflect the full diversity of reality, rankings shape the perception of that reality.

He advised representatives of higher education institutions present at the event to try to influence how rankings develop rather than opposing the trend.

This final point is a good one: universities do have to engage with the rankings. Although you don’t have to express support for them in order to do so. However, I’m still not clear why U-Multirank, a league table which will not be a league table, is necessary. We’ll have to wait and see.

True Crime on Campus §19: a bit “wonky”

More true crime on campus

It’s business as usual for our ever-vigilant and attentive Security Team:

1445 Report of a suspicious package outside the DLRC Security attended. The package belonged to a Student who was playing a prank on a friend of his. Security Officers have given the Student some advice.

2105 Report of a male lying on the ground near to the Lodges on Beeston Lane. Security attended on arrival the male was sitting up. He stated that he was a member of staff but had felt a bit “wonky” after attending a formal event at a Hall of Residence. Security took the male home as he was still unsteady on his feet.

16:30 Security received a report to call for a plumber to room A13 at the Clinical Science Building at the City Hospital due to a slow drip from a pipe. A bucket was placed underneath the leak. Helpdesk informed.

0045 Patrol Security observed a male attempting to enter Derby Hall via an open window. The person was stopped by Security Officers and identified as a student who lives in the Hall but had forgotten his room key.

20:45 Security were called to Triumph Road to investigate a missing barrier. It was reported that a group of people were using it to jump over. Security removed barrier and placed in the Dearing Building.

1910 Security were requested to provide two batteries for the door bell to Hugh Stewart House by the Hall Porter of Hugh Stewart Hall Security attended.

12:05 Security received a phone call from the Warden at a Hall as a cleaner had found four cannabis plants growing in pots in the shower. Lights and other items associated with growing cannabis were also found. All items removed, Security to follow up and Police informed.

12:30 Security were called to the Trent Building, lower ground floor near the Great Hall as a Student had reported a male in the female shower. On arrival Security witnessed one male and one female exiting the room together.

22:15 Security were called to Sherwood Hall as someone was in the bar with a bag of ten swords. The student claimed that they were used in traditional English dance and he brought them onto Campus to promote this. Security removed swords as they could be used as weapons. Warden informed. Security to follow up.

22:35 The Hall Warden at Lenton and Wortley Hall informed Security that three students were running around in their underwear. Security made them aware that this was unacceptable. Security to follow up.

0045 Report of a male lying unconscious in a female toilet in the Hallward Library. University Security attended the Student was woken up and found to be very drunk. The Student thought the toilets were his room in his Hall of Residence. Security escorted the Student out of the Library where he was able to make his way back to his Hall.

1330 Report that a 4 year old child had been found on the Boulevard adjacent to the Tennis Centre. Security attended and spoke to the child. The child was asked where their parents were the child pointed to the DHL Pavilion. Security took the child to the Pavilion where the mother was identified. The mother was eating a meal. She did not thank Security for removing the child from the side of the road or returning the child to her. She told the child not to do it again and continued eating her meal.

0500 Patrol Security spoke to an Ambulance crew outside Derby Hall. They had been called to a student who had injured themselves while sleeping. Officers were not able to obtain further details as to the injury. The Warden is to be informed.

0250 Patrol Security Officers observed two students riding pedal cycles on Beeston Lane without lights the pair were also weaving all over the roadway. Security Officers stopped the students both of whom were drunk and the cycles they were on did not belong to them. The cycles were taken from them and they were informed that they would be reported to the Head of Security.

2013 Complete University Guide League Table

Yes, it’s the first league table of the season

The Complete University Guide and league table is now out. The details can be found on the Guide websitetogether with lots of other analysis (including by subject, region and mission group)  and information on careers, fees etc. The main table uses nine indicators: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment, Entry Standards, Student:Staff Ratio; Spending on Academic Services; Spending on Student Facilities; Good Honours degrees achieved; Graduate Prospects and Completion. The Subject tables are based on four: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment; Entry Standards and Graduate Prospects.

 Rank 2012  Rank 2013
1 (1) Cambridge
2 (4) LSE
3 (2) Oxford
4 (3) Imperial
5 (5) Durham
6 (6) St Andrews
6 (8) Warwick
8 (7) UCL
9 (9) Lancaster
10 (10) Bath
11 (11) Bristol
12 (12) York
13 (15) Exeter
14 (19) Loughborough
15 (14) Southampton
16 (13) Edinburgh
17 (21) Glasgow
18 (16) King’s
19 (17) Nottingham
20 (23) Leicester

So, little movement in the top 15 apart from the slightly surprising news that LSE has usurped Oxford to climb to second place in the table. Oxford has dropped from first place in 2011 and this change will undoubtedly grab the headlines for the table. Glasgow and Leicester join the top 20 but Sussex and SOAS drop out.

David Willetts on internationalisation via sharing university statutes

An interesting idea?

At the recent HEFCE Annual Conference the Universities Minister, David Willetts, delivered a wide-ranging speech which included a couple of interesting points on internationalisation:

Since becoming universities minister, I have worked hard with UUK’s excellent international office and of course the British Council in forging partnerships with other countries: with China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and – in the past fortnight alone – Turkey, the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Malaysia and Indonesia. This week in London, I have already met my Chinese counterpart, and today I am meeting he science minister from India. There is a lot going on. In Turkey, for instance, I witnessed the real potential for a “system-to-system” offer – with students able to study in either country, sharing of educational technologies, academic exchanges and degree validation. The Science Without Borders initiative with Brazil is path breaking.

In Indonesia, I agreed a joint communiqué on education to develop our links with Indonesian universities – promoting two-way student mobility, institutional leadership and knowledge transfer. The likes of Nottingham University already have solid connections to Indonesian institutions. There’s room for more productive associations – in Malaysia, for example, which has more overseas British campuses than any other country.

My department is working with UUK, UKTI, the British Council and others to support our excellent universities – and private companies working in the education sector – to seize these opportunities. It means attracting overseas students here. It means more overseas campuses. But it has to go further and be a full offer from the range of players that make up British higher education today – from architects and trainers of administrators through to external examiners and shared post graduate study. We are still only scratching the surface. This is one of Britain’s great growth industries of the future. The deep respect for our universities across the world is a reminder of what we have achieved here and what more we can do in the future.

All very positive but does remain rather at odds with the Government’s visa policy. One point which was made by the Minister, which does not appear in the published speech, I found rather interesting (and not a little bizarre). Referring to one of his visits, possibly to Kurdistan, Willetts reported that he had been approached by an academic who was seeking to establish a new university. As a starting point, the Professor had downloaded the charter and statutes of Lancaster University and was using them as a blueprint for setting up a regulatory framework for the new institution. The Minister was clearly taken with this idea and thought that it might be a good thing to take copies of a university governance template on future international missions.

I’ve not looked at the Lancaster statutes but if they are anything like those of other universities of a similar vintage and even if the charter, statutes and ordinances had been modernised in the past few years they are unlikely to offer the ideal model for a new university. The Willetts idea is, I am sure, well-intended but statutes and ordinances will be the product of a series of negotations, local and national (in the case of the Model Statute relating to academic terms and conditions), and will have been modified and adapted over many years. There are some good examples out there but statutes don’t lend themselves to being copied in quite the way suggested. Nevertheless, having a Registrar and Secretary or similar on international missions who is able to advise on governance may well be a useful idea.

The Imperfect University: Do we need a level playing field?

On the issue of a “level playing field” for universities

For the next, slightly briefer, piece in the Imperfect University series, I thought it might be interesting to pick on a topical issue which nevertheless has wider relevance and also serves to highlight some of the imperfections inherent in higher education. Following the White Paper, Putting students at the heart of the system, published in June 2011, there has been a lot of talk about importance of a “level playing field” for the universities and the expected new for-profit entrants to higher education provision in the UK (or, to be precise, England, given that the other nations in the UK have different, and increasingly divergent, arrangements for higher education and therefore their own playing fields with which to concern themselves).

The demands for a level playing field seem to come from all quarters, with established players insisting that new entrants should be subject to all the same controls and constraints that already apply to them and the for-profit wannabees insisting that they need more of a break given the decades of advantage enjoyed by recipients of public funding.

The fact that we are already in the sporting arena for our metaphors is in itself interesting (is this just a game then or is it more serious than that?) but if we set that matter aside and confine ourselves to the consideration of playing fields what can we conclude?

Different pitches, different teams

Steve Egan, Deputy Chief Executive at HEFCE, at a recent AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) event, was rather dismissive of the idea of a single level playing field, preferring to imagine number of different playing fields. However, it was not clear if these were side by side or one on top of each other or indeed whether they were marked up for the same game or which teams were playing on each.

Pinsent Masons, in a draft response to the BIS technical consultation (dated 14 October 2011, circulated by email on 18 October) observe that charitable universities and non-charitable for-profits have fundamentally different aims. They are two quite different teams – hens versus foxes is what Pinsents suggest – which means we are unlikely to get either a good match or a fair result.

The paper rightly points out that this is a key issue when considering what we mean by a University:

…the problem with the BIS proposals, as it seems to us, is that alternative providers will be given access to public funds when they have no corresponding obligations in relation to public benefit and the long term interests of the sector.

Our alternative proposal is that in order to access public funds, whether directly through grants or indirectly through access to the student loan system, HE providers must have charitable status.

There are plenty of ways for for-profit providers to compete, with many of the advantages which come from their lack of regulation but, as Pinsent Masons put it:

fundamentally, public money should not be subsidising the private benefit of the owners and shareholders of for profit HEIs.

So, it looks like the playing field is already sloping in favour of the for-profits.

International matches

This is a key issue internationally too as we find in The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities. This recent report from the World Bank makes specific reference to this thorny issue. Examining the very different positions of publicly funded and private universities, the report cites a range of examples from East Asia to Chile:

The case studies, which analyze a number of positive and less favorable governance situations, show that an appropriate regulatory framework, strong and inspiring leadership, and adequate management significantly influence the ability of research universities to prosper. Indian Institutes of Technology, for example, would not have operated as effectively as they do if they had been constrained by the same financial and adminis- trative regulations that all other public tertiary education institutions must adhere to in India. They have also, by and large, been protected from political interference for the selection of vice chancellors and the recruitment of academics.

The comparison between the University of Malaya and the National University of Singapore illustrates in a striking way the differences in leadership and management approaches and their direct impact on the respective performance of the two institutions. Similarly, the University of Chile’s status as a public entity prevents it from competing on a level playing field with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Paradoxically, the latter is not subject to the same rules concerning administrative, procurement, and financial control as the former, even though the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile receives budget contributions from the state as other public universities do. The University of Chile is also handicapped by excessive decentralization, which undermines the power of the rector, and by not having a board with outside stakeholders that can help the university to respond better to the needs of society.

As private universities, Pohang University of Science and Technology and Monterrey Institute of Technology have enjoyed much more autonomy and flexibility than public universities in Korea and Mexico, respectively. And as just discussed, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile has certainly benefited from its status as a private institution by enjoying the best of two worlds—the agility and independence of a nonpublic university, while obtaining public subsidies on a regular basis.

The key dimensions of autonomy brought out by the case studies include the ability to mobilize significant additional funding from a variety of nonpublic sources; to provide attractive remuneration packages for top academics; and to boost the international nature of the institution in terms of program content, language of instruction, and focus of the research. (p332)

The playing field therefore looks rather uneven in Chile too.

Keeping it fair

So perhaps the way to keep the playing field level is with the conditions that attach to public funding. Whilst these often feel excessive to those of us working in universities, there is, nevertheless, a strong argument for at least some accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money (although there does needs to be a balance here too – more of this later in the series). David Willetts, speaking at the HEFCE annual conference on 18 April 2012, argued that there is already a level playing field (no, really) and that therefore we should all stop worrying about the precise legal status of the new entrants to higher education. It is difficult not to be concerned about this though.

Nicola Hart in another Pinsent Masons flyer circulated on 23 March 2012 entitled ‘HE reforms – on or off?’ makes the accountability argument more forcefully:

The HE reforms are going full steam ahead. There is a market. For-profit providers are full competitive players in the sector, and seem pretty content with the current (no bill, no extra regulation, no charity law obligations) state of affairs. With these competitive pressures rapidly increasing, encouraged by government, nobody can afford to be complacent and assume that the sector (or their part of it) will remain unchanged. Universities need to continue to think strategically about how they position themselves in a climate that’s becoming less predictable and where change will be driven by policy, not big set-piece legislation. The for-profit providers have been noticeably effective in their lobbying efforts with government. Universities should also think hard about what they want to achieve and what lobbying they need to do to get policy decisions working in their favour. The main missing ingredient is a coherent system of regulation to match the fundamental changes the sector is going through. The leverage of state funding delivered via HEFCE is about to disappear. For-profit providers are playing on the same field as universities but with different (fewer and less onerous) rules and obligations. We think this is important and something which government will need to square – where there is public funding, in whatever form, there needs to be (at least) appropriate public accountability and regulation.

For the for-profit entrants, they will need to subject themselves to the same requirements as others if they wish to access public funding (as Hart suggests). The alternative is to enjoy the freedom to act which comes without such regulatory constraint. So, not exactly a completely level playing field and indeed the rules are a little different for both teams but there would at least be a chance of a decent match.

And if we change ends at half time then we can at least argue that the unevenness of the ground doesn’t matter (although no doubt there would always be some complaints: “they had the wind behind them in the first half and it’s now changed direction” or “we had the sun in our eyes” etc).

Then all we have to worry about is the referee. Or perhaps finding a new metaphor.

Killing the myths in higher education

Misunderstandings and myths

An interesting new pamphlet has just been published by HEPI. Misunderstanding Modern Higher Education: Eight “category mistakes” is a brief and snappy read and is available from the HEPI website:

In this HEPI occasional report, Professor Sir David Watson discusses eight myths – category mistakes – concerning higher education that are widely believed, and argues that these need to be exploded if higher education is to maintain its current comparatively healthy state. This report is based on his presentation to a joint HEPI/HEA seminar at the House of Commons on 26 January 2012.

It’s quite a challenging set of propositions. Here a category mistake is defined as a “sentence that says one thing in one category that can only intelligibly be said of something of another” eg “what does blue smell like?” Watson suggests there are at least eight category mistakes in higher education discourse at present. Some of these I’d agree with but other I think are less convincing.

1. “University” performance

Watson argues that it is the sector or the subject rather than the institution which is the more meaningful unit of analysis. This is certainly true in certain areas, eg NSS, as suggested here. BUT the institution is the key organisational unit, indeed the primary one. While it can reasonably be argued that the university is no more than the sum of its (academic) parts and the staff in those units identify with them more strongly than with the university itself, it is surely wrong to imagine that the subject/department can regarded as an entirely independent unit. There is a mutual dependency here.

3. HE “Sector”

We should be talking about tertiary, ie post-secondary, education rather than exclusively about higher ed. I’m not sure I agree nor does it seem to me that this is a category error. “Higher” education is a sub-category of tertiary education. It is funded differently and has a different set of traditions and regulatory frameworks to other tertiary provision. We might want to take a more rounded view of tertiary education and, indeed, it would be short-sighted not to. But do we gain much by preventing sub-divisions within the very wide range of activity that is tertiary education?

4. Research “selectivity”

Research concentration, which the system encourages, is running counter to the national need and the general trend towards inter-institutional collaboration. In the long run, concentration of research will be counter-productive and isolated work will wither. Two tiers won’t work therefore. But surely this is just an argument for a different kind of selectivity, one based on different criteria to those generated through RAE/REF? For example, signficant collaboration could be the primary criterion. With limited resources to go round though there is always going to be some selectivity.

Probably mythical

5. World-classness

Watson highlights the madness of the international league tables and notes that what everyone says they want is not reflected in what league tables measure. The international tables, which are the determinant of ‘world-classness’, are fundamentally related to research. Again therefore this is about the criteria selected.

7. Informed choice

The paper rightly notes that student choices over time have moulded our system. The idea that students need more information which will then persuade the market to do what government wants is, Watson argues, fundamentally misguided. Additional information is simply not going to get students to do government’s bidding.

8. Reputation and quality: the confusion between the two

Clearly there is some form of relationship between reputation and quality but Watson argues that the gap in reality is much smaller than it often appears. Good quality can clearly exist independently of reputation. Also Watson rightly notes the perception of student instumentalism and its dominance in the discourse.

(I’ve ignored number 2, Access, and number 6, The public/private divide, here.)

And finally…

Finally, Watson asks “What is to be done”?

Rather than Leninist solutions though he offers three particular suggestions. First, the system will need to be messier, more flexible and co-operative. Secondly, we should not chase the Harvard model but rather aim to develop a system more like the California Masterplan – this is really about the national direction of tertiary education. Thirdly, he argues that a proper credit accumulation and transfer framework is needed: “we fail to use these systems for reasons of conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination”. (Actually, I’d suggest it is much more about a desire to protect institutional autonomy.)

Watson concludes by arguing that we should start by tackling these category mistakes and then learn to live with “flux and contingency”. I’m not sure we would want to spend a huge amount of time on the former or that we have any choice about the latter. It’s the nature of the world we operate in. Do read the piece though.

HESA Performance Indicators: More interesting than you’d think

HESA Performance Indicators: Summary tables and charts

HESA, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, has recently published its annual set of UK Higher Education Performance Indicators. See the HESA site for summary tables and charts.

One particular piece of data seems to have attracted attention – Non-continuation rates of full-time entrants after first year at institution. The details are noted here:

Table series T3 provides an indicator showing the proportion of entrants who do not continue in higher education beyond their first year. Table T3a provides this indicator separately for young and mature full-time first degree entrants to higher education.

In general, a higher proportion of mature entrants than young entrants do not continue in higher education after their first year. For full-time first degree entrants in 2009/10, the UK non-continuation rate was 13.3% for mature entrants compared with 7.2% for young entrants (sourced from table T3a). The non-continuation rate for young entrants was 10% or less at approximately 75% of institutions. For mature entrants it was between 2% and 20% at the majority of institutions.

and the summary chart for young entrants looks like this:

While there has been a small rise for young students, it doesn’t look significant and the higher rate for mature students is unsurprising. Whether it will change in future remains to be seen. The new funding regime could be predicted to have an impact either way on drop out rates.

Although the calculations are different it is interesting to compare the HESA data with the reports prepared by the Chronicle of Higher Educations on Graduation Rates and Data for 3,800 Colleges in the USA. They clearly have a problem with “missing” students.

There is plenty of other interesting data in the HESA tables. Well worth a look.

A Key University Ranking

It’s the University Challenge top 10

University Ranking Watch has published a distinctive table: the universities which have won the most University Challenge series. Leaving aside the detail that Oxford and Cambridge enjoy the special privilege of multiple entries, via the Colleges, it’s an interesting list:

Surprisingly, they've never won

1. Oxford      39 points

2. Cambridge      21

3. Manchester      8

4=. Imperial College London      5

4=. Open University       5

6=. Durham      4

6=. Sussex      4

8=. St. Andrews      3

8=. Birkbeck, University of London      3

10=. Bradford      2

10=. Dundee      2

10=. Keele 2

10=. Leicester      2

10=. Belfast      2

10=. Warwick      2

(Note that it’s two points for a win and one for being runner up.)
One day, the University of Nottingham will be there I hope.

Pride & Prejudices: Problems with National & International League Tables

Presentation from AUA Conference 2012

Thank you to all who attended this session on 3 April 2012

As promised, here is the presentation:



As mentioned at the presentation, this will be the last time I deliver this session at AUA conference. I’ve done it too many times but the main reason is that my co-presenter, Tony Rich, is no longer able to join me. Tony is seriously unwell and I would encourage everyone  to sponsor Jonathan Nicholls, Registrary at Cambridge University, who is running the London Marathon to raise funds for Bristol University’s cancer research fund.

See Jonathan’s Just Giving page for details.

The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and Complete University Guide League Tables 2011-12

The four most recent UK University League Tables

Given that searches for UK university league tables are among the most frequent reasons for visitors to the blog, it seemed that another summary might come in useful. Four major league tables were published during 2011 for those considering 2012 entry and all have previously been summarised here. As a handy reference guide, here they all are:

Sunday Times 2012 League Table

The Times 2012 League Table

The Guardian 2012 League Table

The Complete University Guide 2012 League Table

All your UK university league table needs in one location. Don’t take them too seriously though.