League Tables

It’s league table season once again, causing many to turn to their browsers to find out how many places their organisation has  (hopefully) gained over the last year. The Complete University Guide recently published its tables for 2013, and before you all scamper for your keyboards, I can tell you that NU has risen one place – from 24th in 2012 to 23rd in 2013. Is this significant, in the conventional rather than the statistical sense? Given it is only one place, perhaps not. Is it important? – read on.

One of the problems with league tables is that they hide some rather dodgy statistics. For example, if we compare ourselves with Nottingham, some five places above, only seven ‘points’ separate us, on a scale that climbs to 1000 points at the heady altitude of Oxbridge et al. Indeed, only 100 points separate the 16th placed institution compared with the 40th placed. I am no statistician, but it seems to me that the concept of league table position is founded on shaky ground, considering the error that must exist in the measurement. Indeed,  our own VC has written about the pitfalls – see here

So why not consign league tables to the scrapheap? If only we could. Despite their inadequacies, league tables are here to stay. They are used for example by prospective students when selecting an institution at which to study. This will be especially true of international students. Imagine for a moment that you are a prospective student intending to study in say, France. You will most likely be aware of the quality of the  top institutions in Paris such as the École Normale Supérieure, but what about the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon? You might know this institution less well, in which case wouldn’t you be tempted to consult the league tables if they were available?  In this rapidly moving world, league tables are a convenient if rather spurious means to judge ‘quality’.

Of course it is not all fiction – few would argue with the excellence of the top institutions in the table. But when one gets beyond say, the top 10, league table position becomes questionable, and indeed it becomes a merry-go-round when positions are compared between league table providers. This in turn derives from the weighting applied to each measure by the provider.

So, league table position is clearly important, and with the above caveats out of the way there is some very good news for SAgE – four schools make it into the top 10; mechanical engineering rises from 11th to 9th; civil engineering rises from 14th to 10th; chemical engineering rises from 8th to 4th, and agriculture rises from 6th to 3rd. Congratulations to these schools!

How can we improve our league table position? We could ‘play the game’ and focus on tipping the relevant metrics in our favour. However this would not only be disingenuous, but we would risk cascading down the tables if the metrics or weightings were changed (as is frequently the case).

There’s no easy route to the top – it’s about quality, quality, quality.

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About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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