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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Birkbeck, University of London, my institution, has pulled out of all national league tables. I think this is a good move.

In my opinion, league tables are poisonous instruments of marketised higher education premised on nebulous ideas of market consumer “choice” for students. To my mind, they are usually statistically “total bollocks”, to use a technical term (for just one example: where are the error bars?) They most often seem to me merely to re-enforce existing hierarchies (perhaps the recent Guardian tables exempted) because this is the only way they gain credibility; for who would trust the league table that ranked a brand new institution above the venerable ancient universities without a good reason? (Such excuses/reasons are usually: “we don’t rank research because students don’t care about it” – but just what on earth do you think the final consequence of that logic is for society? In a world in which universities are funded by student recruitment, if you tell them only to go to places that don’t do research, because that’s what “matters to them”, what happens? I’ll wait if you want to think about it.)

I also don’t want to hear any nonsense about how if you measure the right things in baskets of metrics it will all be OK. If you create the conditions that cause massive mental health problems for academics in competitive HE, you can’t fix it by creating another ranking of mental health support facilities at universities. And the worst of the worst of the worst are, in my view, rankings that rate institutions on the admission grades they ask of incoming students. Those who can demand that students they admit have already demonstrated that they are bright and well educated tend to have better outcomes for those students? Really, Einstein?

But, let me be honest. Birkbeck leaving the tables is a type of ranking system/prestige game of its own. Refusing to play the league-table game – which I believe, once more, is a genuinely destructive game – gives a type of cultural kudos to our university. It places our university within a unique market position; the plucky underdog poorly served by conventional measures.

It is entirely true that Birkbeck is not served well by the league tables. Birkbeck has a noble mission to provide higher education to those to whom it is traditionally denied. We have far higher rates of disability among our student body and a much wider social demographic by almost any measure than most other universities. What we do is damn good, and we are penalised by the league tables for doing it. But it’s also self-serving for us to drop out of the tables; it confers a cultural capital. It is not purely an idealistic decision. This doesn’t mean the withdrawal is disingenuous, though. It is both idealistic and strategic at the same time.*

So an interesting question then becomes: why haven’t institutions at the top of the table also dropped out? What do Cambridge and Oxford gain by continuing to participate in these leagues? They know that, for the most part, they will always find themselves at the top of the table. Sure, there may be slight differences that put them first, second, or even (gasp!) third, by the measures used. But let us say that Oxbridge did not appear in these tables. Everyone would still assume that they were top of the tables, so they don’t lose anything in that respect. What they do lose is the rest of the sector chasing the ridiculous prestige and scarcity structures that condition the shape of HE, at which Oxbridge is head. The very notion of competition is what seems, to me, to be at stake here.

In other words, what I am asking is: why do those who could also opt out without penalty not do so? Certainly those in the middle of the rankings cannot leave in the same way that Oxbridge could. So what is the benefit to Oxbridge of staying? My suspicion is that the very culture of competitiveness might be what such institutions wish to preserve, even if that wish is subconscious.*

I then wonder, in a speculative vein, whether this isn’t a linked logic to Trinity College’s planned withdrawal from the sector-wide pension scheme. The argument they made here was that, were they the “last man standing”, they would end up bearing the pension costs of the entire sector. But really, this is the problem here: who could worry that you would be the last university to exist and think “my word, that would be terrible for our pension contributions”, rather than “it would be a terrible situation for society should many other universities go bust”? This exemplifies the same kind of competitive ethos that views all others as beneath you.*

Note: paragraphs marked with a * were added/updated/amended on the 11th June 2019.