On statistics and league tables

The results of the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Times University Guide 2013, both published within in the last couple of days, have made one thing clear. The best universities for research are not always the best universities for teaching quality. While Oxford and Cambridge with their student-friendly tutorial system still did well in terms of student satisfaction, Edinburgh University, one of the highest-ranking institutions research-wise, was ‘ranked bottom in the country for teaching quality’, with students complaining about ‘lack of prompt feedback or detailed comments’ and more generally ‘insufficient advice and support’, The Sunday Times reported.

‘Despite their world-class reputations for research and high entrance requirements, more than a third of the 24-strong Russell Group find themselves in the bottom 40 of 125 institutions for teaching’, Liz Lightfoot writes in The Sunday Times. Of course, as with all statistical evidence, there is more than one way of reading the results.

It might just be that Russell Group students have a stronger sense of entitlement and therefore are more likely to criticise the quality of teaching they receive, as History Professor and TV presenter Amanda Vickery (@Amanda_Vickery) suggested on Twitter. But it might also be that academic departments ‘hire on ability to attract research funding’ with the candidates’ ability to teach as ‘an afterthought’ only, as the journalist and Associate Lecturer at Brunel University Mark Shanahan (@Leapfrog Mark) commented. So students are bound to ‘lose out’.

There is probably more than a grain of truth in both views. If you are used to very high standards of research and teaching you expect more, and departments relying for their income on external research funding cannot always afford to go for the best teachers – especially now with the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) just around the corner (although this is not to say that great teachers can’t be excellent researchers at the same time).

On a micro-level the same wars are fought out in academic departments up and down the country. There are the colleagues who only care about their own research profile and don’t give their teaching prep a second thought, and there are the colleagues who put all their energy into their teaching and consequently never get anything published. There are many shades of grey (sorry for reminding you of THAT book) in between. Ideally, each university lecturer would be given enough time to do both, so the question wouldn’t even come up. But everyone working in the academic environment knows about the constant struggle to balance research and teaching, to maintain a high profile in your peer group, while also doing the best by your students.

Here lies the reason why many of us are overworked, some of us slowly go paranoid, and university departments can at times turn into toxic environments torn by jealousy and bitchiness.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. But we could start by taking all rankings with a pinch of salt.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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