New University Ranking – The Alpha Beta

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Is your university due a name change? Aardvark University, anyone?

The most recent addition to the panoply of UK university rankings, the Alpha Beta Ranking, was launched today. Aberdeen is ranked 1st, while Cambridge and Oxford, who usually fight tooth and nail for the top spot, languish in 30th and 105th respectively – previously unknown territory for them. For the full ranking, see below.

The author of the ranking, Dr Richard Budd from Liverpool Hope University (ranked 82nd), said, ‘we monitor virtually everything in universities nowadays, from publications to toilet breaks and paper – not toilet paper – usage, even how often students access their Virtual Learning Environments. This information is used to guide decision-making by senior management. Ranking universities alphabetically, as we have done here, is perhaps the last unmined source of ranking data available once the TEF is implemented, and it raises some interesting questions. For example, York St John languishes in last place (163rd) only one place away from its closest neighbour, the University of York. This reflects a geographical clustering of universities in the data that might require further analysis.’

The effect of this new ranking on the sector remains to be seen. We may see a flurry in universities, towns and cities being renamed, or even entire universities relocated. The University of Surrey could move to the nearby Aaron’s Hill and change its name accordingly, which would instantly move it to first place. It may have to do so quickly as there is another Aaron’s Hill in Somerset which the University of Bath could lay claim to. Any changes would, of course, incur significant costs in rebranding, new website URLs and so on, and the requirements in terms of internal paperwork alone are staggering. This new method of ranking could be incorporated by others and may even be copied internationally. This would no doubt result in a rise in the visibility of Abilene Christian University in the US, while the prestigious Zhejiang University in China experiences some status slippage.

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Okay, so there is clearly a generous portion of The Onion in all of this. However, if we accept that university rankings are somewhat arbitrary, and also that they have a powerful effect on the way that universities are run (and therefore how students and academics behave), then there is an important point here. I know I’ve written about this before, but this I daren’t leave my spoof article up there without a disclaimer – someone might take it (or me) seriously!

On the point of arbitrariness, rankings are based on a particular model of university. If you start with what people think the best universities are and use them as the ideal, then you are automatically disadvantaging everyone else. The ‘top’ universities tend to be old, wealthy, large, and very hard to get into (for both students and staff). Age is simply a question of chance – the longer a university has been in operation, the longer it has had to make mistakes, to develop and grow. There is a ranking for ‘younger’ (‘under 50’) universities, but this fudges the point that newer starters are instantly and often permanently disadvantaged. Similarly, money isn’t everything, older universities have endowments, and different subjects require more or less money to teach and research. This means that the subject profile of an institution grossly distorts the numbers without any reflection how good it may be. At the same time, being small and inclusive can carry significant advantages that don’t come across in rankings, not least in terms of developing a sense of a shared community or the social justice aspect of providing a university education for people who may not have done well at school. As I’ve written about before, ‘ability’ is a tricky thing to capture, and there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t leave school with the grades they are potentially capable of, and do and don’t study

Secondly, rankings change how universities behave, in that doing well – better – on the league table can become more important than what it is trying to capture. It becomes about gaming the system, not improving practice, and the emphasis in competition (which is what rankings foster) is on speed, which can engender haste. If your ranking criteria include the proportion of students who get high grades, this is useful if it genuinely reflects the quality of teaching. It could mean that universities improve their teaching and assessment to ensure that students develop as much as possible and score highly. However, this can be a long-term project, and the shorter term solutions are to make assessments easier and/or to inflate grades on an institution-wide basis. I wrote recently about the problems of using retention or drop-out as a measure of teaching quality. To add to this, in the UK the drop-out numbers only count from the 1st of December each academic year, which strikes me as an altogether random date, and might encourage universities to identify and jettison struggling students before that point. The better option is to look at ways of ensuring students have the best opportunity to thrive, and if they drop out through no fault of their own (or of the university), then so be it. Not every university or subject is everyone’s cup of tea, and you can only get so much sense of what uni will be like before you really start. Measures of research quality are equally problematic. The volume of research publications, for example, can encourage ‘salami slicing’, where academics publish a set of similar papers rather than one or two really good ones. There are measures of publication quality, but these are, again, problematic. Every measure you look at has the opportunity to be ‘gamed’, and because rankings can be seen as so important – every university cherry-picks the figures from whichever ranking suits them – this gaming is inevitable.

Having said all of this, rankings are an interesting academic exercise, and the data (and discussions) they generate are certainly useful in many ways. The data, when used judiciously, can be used to identify genuine problems that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. There are also non-academic rankings, such as sustainability, or another one for the social life of the campus. Overall, though, rankings are based on flawed measures and, if we misread them, or accept them uncritically, then any associated changes in practice may be for the worse. The attractiveness of using the easily measurable is that the data collection is straightforward. The big problem is that the validity of the measure may not be good, and this gets forgotten. You can make them more and more complex, and more and more nuanced – which is good – but we always have to have disclaimers on them.

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Anyway, for those of you who are still reading/interested, here’s the the Alpha Beta University Ranking in full. It  includes all ‘recognised bodies’ – organisations in the UK entitled to award their own degrees.

Ranking University
1 University of Aberdeen
2 Abertay University (formerly University of Abertay Dundee)
3 Aberystwyth University (Prifysgol Aberystwyth)
4 Anglia Ruskin University
5 Anglo-European College of Chiropractic
6 Archbishop of Canterbury, The
7 Arden University (formerly known as Resource Development International)
8 Ashridge Business School
9 Aston University
10 Bangor University (Prifysgol Bangor)
11 University of Bath
12 Bath Spa University
13 University of Bedfordshire
14 Birkbeck, University of London
15 University of Birmingham
16 Birmingham City University
17 University College Birmingham
18 Bishop Grossteste University
19 University of Bolton
20 Arts University Bournemouth
21 Bournemouth University
22 BPP University
23 University of Bradford
24 University of Brighton
25 University of Bristol
26 British School of Osteopathy, The
27 Brunel University London
28 University of Buckingham
29 Buckinghamshire New University
30 University of Cambridge
31 Canterbury Christ Church University
32 Cardiff Metropolitan University (Prifysgol Metropolitan Caerdydd)
33 Cardiff University (Prifysgol Caerdydd)
34 University of Chester
35 University of Chichester
36 City University London
37 Coventry University
38 Cranfield University
39 University for the Creative Arts
40 University of Cumbria
41 De Montfort University
42 University of Derby
43 University of Dundee
44 Durham University
45 University of East Anglia
46 University of East London
47 Edge Hill University
48 University of Edinburgh, The
49 Edinburgh Napier University
50 University of Essex
51 University of Exeter
52 Falmouth University
53 University of Glasgow
54 Glasgow Caledonian University
55 University of Gloucestershire
56 Glyndŵr University (Prifysgol Glyndŵr)
57 Goldsmiths, University of London
58 University of Greenwich
59 Guildhall School of Music and Drama
60 Harper Adams University
61 Heriot-Watt University
62 University of Hertfordshire
63 Heythrop College, University of London
64 University of the Highlands and Islands
65 University of Huddersfield
66 University of Hull
67 Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (also known as Imperial College London)
68 Institute of Education, University of London
69 Keele University
70 University of Kent
71 King’s College London
72 Kingston University
73 University of Central Lancashire
74 Lancaster University
75 University of Leeds
76 Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Metropolitan University)
77 Leeds College of Art
78 Leeds Trinity University
79 University of Leicester
80 University of Lincoln
81 University of Liverpool
82 Liverpool Hope University
83 Liverpool John Moores University
84 University of London
85 London Business School
86 London Institute of Banking and Finance, The
87 London Metropolitan University
88 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
89 London School of Economics and Political Science, The (LSE)
90 London South Bank University
91 University College London
92 Loughborough University
93 University of Manchester
94 Manchester Metropolitan University
95 Middlesex University
96 NCG
97 Newcastle University
98 Newman University, Birmingham
99 University of Northampton, The
100 Northumbria University Newcastle
101 Norwich University of the Arts
102 University of Nottingham
103 Nottingham Trent University
104 Open University, The
105 University of Oxford
106 Oxford Brookes University
107 Plymouth University
108 University of Portsmouth
109 Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
110 Queen Mary, University of London
111 Queen’s University Belfast
112 University of Reading
113 Regent’s University London
114 Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen
115 University of Roehampton
116 Royal Academy of Music
117 Royal Agricultural University
118 Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London)
119 Royal College of Art
120 Royal College of Music
121 Royal College of Nursing
122 Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
123 Royal Holloway, University of London
124 Royal Northern College of Music
125 Royal Veterinary College, The
126 University of Salford
127 School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
128 University of Sheffield
129 Sheffield Hallam University
130 University of South Wales (Prifysgol De Cymru)
131 University of Southampton
132 Southampton Solent University
133 University of St Andrews
134 St George’s, University of London
135 University of St Mark and St John, Plymouth
136 St Mary’s University, Twickenham
137 Staffordshire University
138 University of Stirling
139 University of Strathclyde
140 University Campus Suffolk
141 University of Sunderland
142 University of Surrey
143 University of Sussex
144 Swansea University (Prifysgol Abertawe)
145 Teesside University
146 Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
147 University of the Arts, London
148 University College of Estate Management
149 University of Ulster
150 University of Law, The
151 University of Wales (Prifysgol Cymru)
152 University of Wales Trinity Saint David (Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant
153 University of Warwick
154 University of the West of England, Bristol
155 University of West London
156 University of the West of Scotland
157 University of Westminster
158 University of Winchester, The
159 University of Wolverhampton
160 University of Worcester
161 Writtle University College
162 University of York
163 York St John University
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About ddubdrahcir

A Higher Educationalist...
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