Monday, 29 October 2012

Some alternative league tables



 

I was interested to note that some bright sparks have collated a University league table based on the number of people in the institution using the online cloud storage provider Dropbox.  This got me to thinking about some of the many other kinds of league tables which would be a far more useful guide for both prospective students and governments on how well a University is performing.

For example:
 
A league table based on ratings of chair comfort. How many times have you been sat in a lecture or a seminar where you have been squirming, wriggling and stretching to tease out the aches and pains brought on by uncomfortable chairs?  If you are going to spend a small fortune for the privilege of sweating away in lectures for three years, I do not think it is unreasonable to have a thought about the kinds of chairs you will be sitting in.  The scale on which such a table is based should balance the comfort of the chairs, with the danger of excessive softness leading to inadvertent dozing.  I can personally testify to the difficulties faced during a seminar when sitting in antiquated chairs so soft that you almost sink to the floor. The furious and sweat-inducing effort required to keep your eyelids up while sat in such chairs is a torment which, I think, prospective students need to be warned about.


A league table for the number of chip shops in walking distance of the institution.  Let’s be honest, chips are the most economic dining opportunity for students – and the chips served in University cafeteria’s are usually dry and flaky numbers which appear engineered to just make you want to buy another bottle of water (nothing slakes your thirst quite as much as a good greasy chip).  Prospective students may think the idea of a campus set in leafy isolation is romantic, but after a few months the sense of frustration that your dining opportunities are limited to a boring cafeteria or a 45 minute walk will make many wish they had been a little more canny with their applications.

A league table for the range of assessments used.  Some people just don’t like writing essays.  Doesn’t make them unintelligent or incapable.  Doesn’t even mean that they couldn’t knock out a brilliant essay if they have to.  It just means that some student’s don’t enjoy writing them.  Others don’t like exams, and others feel faint at the prospect of a presentation.  Everyone knows that for many students, a key factor in choosing modules or units of study on their degree is whether it has an exam or not.  Surely it would be useful for prospective students to see an at-a-glance table of assessment methods, so that they can pick an institution where they can either avoid their least-favored method of assessment, or ensure that they are only assessed using the method they are most comfortable with.

A league table for the most politically and socially active lecturers.  Do prospective students really give a stuff about whether their lecturer had a publication list as long as their arm?  After all, most of the time a  lecturer’s is in areas so obscure that even if you were inclined to read your lecturers latest monograph on the psychological impact of defecation on a fruit-fly, you would not be able to understand a word of it. Furthermore, if lecturers really are spending so much of their time wrapped up in issues so mind-blogglingly specific that you need a doctorate to read the thing, how on earth are students going to believe the lecturer is able to relate their subject to the real world?  A league table on how a lecturer is politically or socially active will demonstrate just how engaged with the real world they are.  It will indicate just how much lecturers tend to put their intellectual skills to direct use in the world around them.  It will indicate just how much lecturers really want to make the world a better place.  That means they will be more enthusiastic, and easier to understand.

A league table of postgraduate economic stability and job satisfaction.  There are tables and statistics all over the place about how many graduates get a job within a year of leaving University – but that doesn’t really tell you anything.  Such tables seem to imply that if you graduate in November, unless you are managing a bank by Christmas your degree was a waste of time.  Firstly, a career builds.  It doesn’t just happen.  So any assessment of post-graduate achievement should take account of a longer period of time (say, 5 years or so) and not even include the misleading first year.  Secondly, it is difficult to judge the value of a degree purely on whether it gets you a well-paid job.  Strange as it may seem, salary is not the thing that drives everybody.  If it was, nobody would ever become a teacher.  Surely the measure of the effectiveness of a degree can be found more in whether it helps us get to where we want to go.  Finally, in these troubled times the most many of us can aim for is a job with the least chance of sudden redundancy.  It is not the amount of money we have, but how secure we are.  A table which reflects these measures might be a far more useful tool for prospective students today.

A league table of grade improvements.  I can’t believe nobody has thought of this one before.  In fact, rather worrying, Ofsted have thought of this – which usually means it must be a bad idea, but even so I am puzzled why it doesn’t appear to exist.  If a University takes on one hundred students each with five A* A-level grades, it will not really take much to get all 100 of those students to graduate with a high degree classification.  However, getting a cohort of students with no A-levels at all to achieve a good degree classification surely says more about the quality of teaching at an institution.  So let’s have a league table which shows the rate of improvement in students grades, to show how the institution is supporting students in improving standards throughout their studies.  How is that not better?!

A league table showing student achievement in relation to widening participation.  all, it’s all very well for the government to argue that it wants to support widening access to higher education, but this is never going to work if institutions are only ever rewarded on the basis of statistics that depend on the recruitment of more ‘traditional’ students.  League tables should interpret their data in relation to how the institution is widening participation.  For example, how many students are from black and minority ethnicities?  How many from low economic backgrounds?  How many are drawn directly from the local community?  Universities reaching these kinds of students, should be rewarded in league tables – which in turn will discourage the view of Universities as divided between the academically elite at the top of the tables, and the ‘mixed economies’ filling the cheap seats.