Sunday, September 10, 2006

Awards, league tables and advertising

Some good news for colleagues in UCD this weekend. Not only is the industrial action scheduled for tomorrow averted in lieu of further discussion, but the Sunday Times has awarded it the title of "Irish University of the Year."

Of course this award is subjective, even though the newspaper has its own metrics for performing comparisons - Trinity tops that table each year (as they point out on their website). The merits of such league tables is hotly contested and there is no doubt that the selection of parameters and measures of "quality" are very subjective. In the case of this long running debate in the UK, for example, the questions asked include: does an institution which awards large numbers of first class honours have high standards or low standards? Does an institution which has most of its students having high secondary school grades at entry really "add value" over the period of the degree programme, or is the success largely due to the students themselves? There, the pressure is expected to increase in the new fees regime in England and managers look closely at devising strategies for improving their ranking. Although they also have the rival set of tables produced by the Times Higher.

It could be argued that the ranking is really a similarity measure and the more a university emulates the traditional approaches of Cambridge and Oxford the higher it will ascend. Whereas pity the university that decides to widen access, attract students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and invest at least as much in teaching as it does in research. Brian Ripley, Professor of Applied Statistics at Oxford did a preliminary statistical analysis of such tables years ago and many of his questions are still valid. I'm sure he wasn't particularly motivated by the fact that in the year that he did this work Cambridge was claimed to be far ahead of Oxford.

In the UK version of the Sunday Times the award for university of the year goes to Manchester (England), Cardiff (Wales) and St. Andrews (Scotland). There is no doubt that it provides an excellent marketing opportunity and we can expect all four institutions to milk it for all it is worth this year, whilst forgetting to mention it next year as the title passes to a rival. Certainly my own university was proud of winning the Award the first time it was offered in Ireland and UCC have done well out of winning it twice.

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