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Education: It’s not easy to turn the tables

15 February 2019

John Gay looks at where church universities appear in the overall rankings


LEAGUE tables are increasingly part of everyday life. Even when people are sceptical about what the figures actually mean, and how they are gathered, they cannot help but be influenced by them.

What of university league tables? Once higher education became marketised, and students redesignated as customers, there was a national drive to provide these customers and their advisers with the necessary information to make informed consumer choices about which university to attend, and which course to undertake.

So out came the measurers, and the resultant piles of metrics mushroomed.

One of the inherent shortcomings of league tables, is that they can measure only those aspects that are amenable to measurement. For education, this is particularly pertinent.

Try looking back on your own education, and ask yourself which aspects had the biggest impact on you, overall. How much of this impact could have been measured at the time, and how much only became apparent later in life? While it is possible to measure more immediate educational outputs, longer-term benefits are much harder to assess and record. The risk, then, is that the latter are ignored and the former dominate.

But even immediate aspects are not always easy to measure; sometimes, proxies have to be used. Witness the crass attempt by the Government to use students’ subsequent salary levels as a proxy for teaching quality. On this basis, most teachers, nurses, and social workers must have received very poor-quality teaching.

Whatever the shortcomings of the league tables — however flimsy the data on which they are based, however irritating they are to academics — they are here to stay: university marketing managers scour them avidly for upbeat website headlines; and prospective students and their parents and teachers use them to make life-changing decisions.

LAST September, a glossy Good University Guide came as part of the Sunday Times package. As well as a descriptive section on each of the 132 UK universities, there was an overall league table ranking all the universities according to nine criteria, including teaching quality, graduate prospects, student experience, and research quality. A further 21 general aspects, such as students’ past schooling and home background, and 67 subject areas were also ordered in rank.

Similar guides are produced by The Guardian and The Independent. So I examined the positions of the 15 Cathedrals Group church universities through the metrics used by The Sunday Times, and also cross-referred to the other two main guides. Although there is some variance between the guides, depending on which mix of data is used, certain broad conclusions emerged.

The church universities as a whole come out creditably, especially considering that they were all not universities before 2001, and so have had little time to acquire the full panoply of university features. This is particularly evident in the area of research output, and funding, which tends to be based on the principle of “to those who already hath, shall be given”.

In the two main areas directly affecting students, however, they do particularly well. Thirteen of the 15 universities are in the top half of the league table for teaching quality. Eleven are similarly in the top half for the student experience that they provide (see table). The joint Anglican and Roman Catholic Liverpool Hope University is in the top 50 in the overall league-table ranking.

Social inclusion is also a strong feature of the church universities, reflecting their foundations and values (see table). They find themselves recruiting significantly from a relatively small pool of students, many of whom have modest entry standards. Many are also from deprived areas, are mature students, have a working-class background, and are from state schools. They also score particularly well on their admissions of students with disabilities. Essentially, they are providing a university education for many who, a generation ago, would not have contemplated it.

As a result, the sector’s overall social-inclusion ranking is high. Unfortunately, the downside to being socially inclusive is that it has negatively affected ratings for entry standards, graduate prospects, and completion rates.

PUTTING to one side the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit rollercoaster, the universities face a number of challenges. The most serious one is student recruitment, which has become an increasingly unregulated, market-driven “Wild West”. Some of the high-status Russell Group universities have been expanding their recruitment, which is having a negative knock-on effect on the “lower tariff” universities.

Recruitment difficulties have been further compounded by negative publicity about one of the church universities’ main student markets: arts graduates who end up in low-paid non-graduate jobs.

Furthermore, the brake is being applied to unconditional offers and to degree-grade inflation. The latter has fuelled student expectations, as the percentage of firsts and upper seconds awarded has increased from 67 per cent in 2010/11 to 78 per cent in 2016/17, and the percentage of firsts from 16 to 27 per cent.

None of this has been helped by the spiralling debts that are run up by some universities, especially to fund expansion-building during the era of cheap money. The good news is, however, that the number of 18-year-olds is set to rise from just over 700,000 in 2020 to just under 900,000 by 2030.

While the Government is likely to persist with league tables, the church universities have the option of appealing to young people’s greater sense of idealism and service. A reasonable salary might be a necessary objective, but it should not be a sufficient motivator for the future. So, for instance, Winchester is already developing its next strategic plan round the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals rather than climbing a league table.

High-quality teaching and a good student experience, together with a focus on social inclusion, idealism, and service, should give the church universities an excellent basis for offering a distinctive and attractive education based on their foundation ideals. It is questionable, however, whether this niche market will be strong enough to protect them.

The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and Visiting Professor of the University of Winchester.

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