Wednesday, 1 May 2013

League tables

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

The latest set of university league tables are out and the University of the South of England (USE) has climbed up over ten places to quite a respectable position. The Marketing Department is naturally very pleased about this, particularly as we have leap-frogged a couple of our regional rivals. The Vice Chancellor, Victor Crispin, has already appeared on local TV and radio news programmes. He has stressed the point that for students who live in the south of England and who want to attend a local university (as many more students do these days) USE should be the place that they choose.

There are subject based tables out too and Mike Rowe, our Head of Department, is very pleased that our Economics department has climbed a number of places up the table since the last tables were issued. We now rank above several highly regarded departments in the region.

The overall scores are based on a number of factors: the National Student Survey (NSS) score, a Graduate Prospects score (an indicator of employability in a graduate status job), an entry standard score (based on the average UCAS tariff for the courses in the department) and a Research Assessment score. Mike was particularly pleased that our NSS score matched that of Warwick University, which was the overall top ranking economics department. Taking into account the problems that we have had with a certain member of staff, Mike says that our students have shown considerable maturity in focusing on the over-riding attention that we give to the student experience.

For insiders like us the league tables are in many ways rather suspect. There are problems with the measurement of the individual contributing variables and also the formula that is used to weight them to arrive at the overall score. The relevance of the Research Assessment score is doubtful. Whilst it is undoubtedly stimulating for a student to be taught by someone who is at the cutting edge of his or her field, who can include references to current path breaking research, this can sometimes be tempered by the fact that the best researchers are not always the best teachers. And, as we have seen even in our own department, sometimes these researchers end up not doing very much teaching as they use their research money to buy out their teaching time. So students find themselves in classes taught by PhD students or other part-time lecturers.

So, while league tables can provide some useful information to help prospective students (and their parents) to decide where to study, there are other things to consider too.

Gus says that he has been having an ongoing discussion with one of his neighbours whose son will be going to university to study economics this autumn. The young man has yet to decide whether to go to Edinburgh or Cardiff. His mother wants him to go to Edinburgh, mainly because of the better employment prospects score for that department. The young man wants to go to Cardiff because some of his friends from school also want to go there. He is also thinking about how difficult it would be to get home from Edinburgh compared with the straightforward train connection that links the south of England to South Wales.

The student experience is about more than the chosen course of study. Some students like to be close to home, others see university as an opportunity to break free. Some students like a campus environment, others prefer a university in the heart of a city.

Some students choose a university because it has a good reputation for certain sports such as rowing or rugby. Or maybe they have an excellent orchestra or choir that the student would like to join. And Gus told me that one of our previous External Examiners told him that he chose Manchester University as the place to study because he was a Manchester United supporter!

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