Ig Nobel awards

This year’s Ig Nobel awards

Report in the Guardian about this year’s Ig Nobel awards. A couple are rather good:

Veterinary medicine prize
Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson at Newcastle University’s school of agriculture share the award for the groundbreaking discovery that giving cows names such as Daisy increases their milk yield. “It’s the highlight of my career,” said Douglas. “The work amused the public, but it addressed a serious issue about the welfare of animals and points to an easy way to improve yields by reducing stress in cattle.”

Mathematics prize
Awarded to Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple way of dealing with a wide range of numbers. Gono ordered his bank to print notes with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

The one about police in Ireland misreading Polish driving licences must be a joke though. Fuller details and references are on the improbable research site.

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“Pressure grows” to replace league tables

“League tables should be replaced, says v-c” according to a recent article in THE. As an alternative to league tables it is proposed that comprehensive “quality profiles” be used instead of crude rankings.

Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, said assessments should ask if the university is “good at what it does”, rather than if it is “better than the others”:

The intention is to supersede the lists compiled by newspapers with a tool that allows more detailed comparison of institutions’ strengths and weaknesses and better reflects the sector’s diversity. Last autumn, the Higher Education Funding Council for England suggested that web-based “spidergrams” could be used to illustrate university performance across a range of areas. Times Higher Education understands the proposal was accepted by the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and appeared in the draft Higher Education Framework drawn up by John Denham as Universities Secretary.mast_blank

Professor Brink said that “quality is a more subtle and multi-dimensional concept than can be captured in a linear ranking…If we could find a way of quality profiling that allows for all three core functions as well as sector diversity, we would be doing ourselves and the general public a favour. Quality profiling of this kind would give us a fresh way of dealing with the issue of comparability – particularly if profiles could be compiled on the basis of some sector-wide guidelines and categories.”

An analysis of newspaper rankings commissioned by Hefce last year raised a number of concerns, but acknowledged that institutions were strongly influenced by league tables. The “spidergram” approach, being considered by the Government, is based on performance indicators in research, knowledge transfer, teaching, workforce skills and widening participation.

This is an interesting contribution. Spidergrams or similar profiling mechanisms in the form described here can be helpful tools and can offer a useful snapshot of an institution’s position. This could be useful not only to prospective students and external stakeholders but also to the university itself. All good stuff then. But no matter how helpful, meaningful and accurate such profiles are, it seems extremely unlikely that they will supplant league tables. Whether we like it or not the rankings are here to stay – what these kind of mechanisms can do though is, possibly, influence the indicators used in some of the league tables and that might represent some positive progress. We shall see.