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University rankings, markets and spin

In the current globalized economy, rankings are an obsession supposed to help consumers make an informed choice. Apart from the well-founded criticisms of ‘virtual customers’ flooding some platforms with positive feedback, the sheer amount of ‘information’ available often transforms even positive choices into daunting decisions.

With the growing marketization of the UK Higher Education and the metamorphosis of students into customers, the latter need to be ‘guided’ through their choice of university. Students are now told they need to ‘invest’ in themselves rather than become educated. And what better guides are there than league tables and customer feedback? The latter is ensured by the National Student Survey (NSS) in which ‘student satisfaction’ is dominant, as if satisfaction were a good measure of education. As for the former, there is no shortage of that either. League tables have flourished ever since the first release of the Shanghai Jiaotong ranking in 2003 and there are now many different sets of rankings and criteria. Unfortunately, ranking universities is somewhat more complex than ranking tennis or chess players. Universities do not oppose each other in events with a specific outcome (win, draw or loss) and they have a series of complex missions not easily captured in scores.

How did we end up here? In part this is the result of the incorporation of the former polytechnics as Post-92 Universities, and the target of 50% of school leavers going on to higher education. The sector is bigger and universities need to work harder to differentiate themselves. A ‘market’ needs data to drive ‘customer’ choice. As with any online shopping platform, it does not matter how relevant the customer feedback review is as long as it is there. Nevertheless, students are led to believe that the 10th ranking university is better than the 15th one. One look at the Unistats website ( reveals the vast amount of ‘information’ students are deluged with when trying to make an ‘informed choice’. Apart from the stress this creates for students, these rankings do other kinds of damage, as captured in the excellent Distinguished Lecture Professor Dorothy Bishop gave at the university last year about the TEF and its shortcomings.

University reputations are high-inertia beasts, very difficult to move, one way or another. Rankings on the other hand, by releasing data every year, can tempt us to establish short-term correlations between measures, strategies and rank variation. A quick look at some rankings’ time series (Figs. 1-3) mostly shows stability over the last 5 to 10 years, and it is very difficult to establish whether a year-to-year variation is significant.

Figure 1 – from Evolution of UoS rankings in the UK,

Figure 2 – from Evolution of UoS THE World University rankings

Figure 3 – from the Evolution of UoS QS World rankings

An exception is the sharp decrease in 2018 (Fig. 3), but even here the reasons are likely to be multiple and these data would need to be rigorously analysed before any serious conclusion could be drawn.

A worrying trend is how communications teams often cannot resist the temptation and use the yearly release of these rankings to spin the news. In last year’s news post, while we took a strong hit in ranking as mentioned above, the message was Southampton’s ranking reflects its performance in the ‘pillars’ used by the THE to generate its list. Once again this year, the University’s strongest pillar is for International Outlook with a score of 92 – more than double the sector median score of 43.7. Southampton also scored well for citations at 86, some 39 points above the sector median with scores for Teaching and Research also above the median.” We might also have come third in the UK for coffee machine quality… The great thing with these rankings is that there is always something you can cherry-pick to make you look good.

But no worries, this year’s news saw the return of our glory. In this year’s financial statement, it is said (p. 3) that “In the spring/summer we received a flurry of good news, all pointing to the positive impact of our strategy and operational focus on quality: we rose 6 places in the Complete University Guide, 12 places in the Guardian University league table, 12 places in the Times Good University Guide, regained our place in the World’s Top 100 in QS and were awarded a Silver in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). […]. All major achievements.” This is Baldrick (from the BBC series Black Adder) at his most cunning: ‘drop’ in the rankings, come back to near where you were and praise the university strategy for a huge leap forward.

It goes without saying, NSS can be spun too. In the same document, there is more fantastic news: “The focus and effort that we have put into improving the student experience has been positively reflected in a gain of 1% in the overall satisfaction score to 84%.” Of course, any of our students making this statement in a Statistics exam would fail to get the marks, so this is not setting a great example. The strong evidence provided by Prof. Dorothy Bishop [sharepoint site, password needed 25:00, slide 29] should encourage us to take these with a pinch of salt rather than use flawed statistical commentary to spin the data in the direction you want.

The dire competition imposed on the HE sector by gradually removing public funding has led our universities to become individualistic, hoping that they will do better than the others. A symptom of this trend was revealed during the pension dispute and recent news that some universities are tempted to ‘leave the USS boat’ to escape any solidarity. Unfortunately, this competition is a negative sum game. Our ‘competitors’ have the same degree of intelligence as we have and fighting them will only result in all of us taking the hit. The risk is that while we spend all our energy trying to be ‘better’ than the others using such short-term and flawed criteria, we cease to be good according to academic criteria.

Rather than compete, we should collaborate and lobby against the plan to turn our universities into businesses. We should work in a university where honesty and transparency takes precedence over spin. In times of financial hardship, the right leadership would respond as an academic community, not as a corporation. We do not need ‘business plans’, ‘performance metrics’ and senior managers having to sign Non Disclosure Agreements before engaging with university strategy. We need open and honest debates and transparent decision making. These issues are at the heart of what staff and students believe are at stake in the appointment of our new VC. They are why we are asking for better senior leadership and a stronger more robust Senate.


My name is bond, university bond…

Several universities have borrowed significant amounts of money from private and/or public investors. UK universities have issued £4.4bn in bonds since the beginning of 2013. This figure is scary given the total yearly HE sector income of about £30bn. This university has a £300M bond issued in 2017.

When we borrow money for a house mortgage, we repay interest and capital, so that the whole loan is eventually repaid. Or we can pay interest only, but this means there is still a debt to be cleared at the end of the term. The interest-only model is used for the university bond. The university will pay 2.25% interest every year, some £6.7M, and are supposed to pay the full £300M back in 40 years. (Oxford, has a bond for 100 years). The bond is akin to issuing shares to a group of shareholders who will have a steady regular income but it turns our university into a for-profit organization bound to make a yearly surplus to satisfy these investors.

This is the climax of marketization. Universities are burdened with financial obligation and under the surveillance of rating agencies. In recent weeks your UCU officers have been told that we are not allowed to know student numbers because this is ‘price sensitive’ information and we must not alarm the investors. How did we end up in an education institution that cannot tell us how many students we have?

When the bond comes to term those who made the financial decisions will be long gone, yet staff at the university will have paid the price many times over. How did we end up here? Such endeavours would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The game changer of course was the reduction in public investment in Higher Education. Alongside the introduction of student fees and loans these kinds of bond arrangements shift public investment into private debt. A great way to make the national budget look better but not necessarily the best way to support education. The bond is a millstone around our necks: it demands that we – the staff – generate surplus. This is clear in the 10 year plan [password required], the source of pressures to reduce staff pay, pensions and announce redundancies, which UCU are currently fighting.

In the appointment of our next Vice-Chancellor, it is essential that we, as an academic community and as UCU, seek a Vice-Chancellor who will stand up with our community against the marketization of education. We need a Vice-Chancellor who will work towards more democracy and listen to frontline staff and students so that we are integral to the university strategy rather than mere recipients. There is still time to sign the petition about the appointment of the next VC and to make sure your voice is heard.

All we want for Christmas … is better senior management and a new VC

At the time of writing, Southampton UCU understands that over 50 members of the University Senate have expressed their concern at being asked to rubber stamp the appointment of three Senate representatives to the Selection Committee charged with finding our next VC. The appointments themselves are of esteemed and respected colleagues, but what concerns Senators and UCU members is the process, which is opaque and rushed. Once again, as with the recent redundancies and the restructuring to 5 Faculties, Senate – the academic governance of our University – has been asked to approve, without adequate consultation or discussion, a vital decision about the future of our University. Senators, staff and students are rightly angered.

Alongside this attempt to railroad Senate, senior management have published a ‘3 question survey’ [password needed] for staff to indicate what attributes they wish to see in our next VC. The framing of these questions and the format – buried on the SUSSED intranet – effectively limits potential discussion and closes down debate, while allowing senior managers to claim they have ‘consulted’ the University community. To date the campus trades unions, the legally recognised representatives of staff, have not been invited to take part in this vital appointment.

Successive staff surveys have highlighted staff concerns about the senior management of the university. The disconnect between the top team and frontline staff is well known. The failure of senior managers to listen to staff is a repeated complaint. We have been promised no more change, better management, and a listening culture, and yet we have continued to experience poorly managed change and an abject failure to engage with staff and students.

There are now 137 senior managers earning over £100,000 pa. The top team ranks swell with every restructure and it seems unlikely that this trend will be reversed. When some of our lowest paid staff struggle to make ends meet there is understandable anger at excessive salaries at the top especially when the senior management appear so out of touch.

We know that the next VC will have a profound effect on lives of all who work and study here. We are told that the next VC must deliver the 10 Year plan, yet many staff and students have little or no confidence in this plan which has created further unnecessary disruption at the University. It is vital that frontline staff and students have a voice in the selection of the next VC, and in University strategy.  Southampton UCU have created a petition to University Council – we urge staff and students to sign it (copies can be obtained here) – the text is reproduced below, in case you need some inspiration to answer the ‘3 question survey’.

We, the undersigned, want a Vice-Chancellor who:

1. Dedicates themselves in national and local debates on higher education, to a vision of Universities as public goods not just private economic ones;
2. Is willing to take a critical approach to the University strategy and 10 year plan and seeks to avoid further cuts to frontline staff;
3. Recognises the need to avoid further unnecessary and unhelpful restructuring and associated disruption;
4. Employs a management style that embodies the values of the University (excellence, creativity, community and integrity), and truly values and nurtures our University community;
5. Empowers the University Senate for active decision-making, and commits to returning to open democratic processes with University’s Senate at their heart to improve accountability;
6. Receives a salary that is no more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee in the University and commits to ensuring that the University pays the real living wage to all directly employed staff*.


*this is carefully worded. We hope that the University will ensure that all suppliers and subcontractors pay a real living wage, but we know that they can, as a first step, ensure that everyone on the University payroll receives this.

University Governance – Time to take back control?

The news that our VC and President Sir Christopher Snowden is retiring a little earlier than anticipated has provoked a number of conversations by staff and students about what kind of VC we should hope for next. The emerging consensus seems to be ‘not more of the same please’.

Several colleagues have expressed relief at Sir Christopher’s departure and suggested that this is an excellent opportunity for those critical of the direction of the University over recent years to inform the appointment process for the next VC. We very much hope that the next VC will rebuild relations with academic and academic-related staff, and begin to repair the damage done to our University

The appointment process for the new VC must be transparent and take account staff concerns and morale. We have had two VCs in a row who arrived with a negative reputation for difficult relations with staff in their previous Universities. Sadly both lived up to these poor reputations and both wasted considerable staff time and effort on top down reorganisations and cuts to frontline staff.

Having met the new Chair of Council before he took up his post, UCU will be seeking further dialogue over the coming months to help him understand staff and student concerns. Some key points that we will be putting forward are that our next VC:
1/ should receive a salary much closer proportionately to that of other senior University staff
2/ must dispense with management approaches based on surveillance and bullying, and instead adopt an approach which is collegial, consultative and supportive and, above all, which values staff
3/ should take a more active role in national debates about Higher Education and argue for Universities as a public good.

One of the reasons we have ended up with out of touch leadership and excessively paid top teams is the disconnect between front line academic and academic-related professional staff and the governance of the University. The opportunities for Senate to genuinely influence the direction of travel have been curtailed and many senators complain that they are forced to rubber stamp changes rather than being allowed to debate and influence them. Council too looks increasingly out of touch. Our analysis suggests that we have one of the most unbalanced Councils, dominated by private sector corporate representatives. Despite recent efforts Council still fails to be truly diverse.
Students too are poorly represented in these governance structures – a few sabbatical officers are allowed to attend and make reports but again the ability of the study body as a whole to comment on changes is limited.

UCU have been watching our colleagues over the border in Scotland responding to the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act introduced in 2016. This set out new requirements for Universities in Scotland in terms of how their Courts and Senates should be constituted, notably requiring that more than 50 per cent of members are elected, and that 10 per cent of members are elected students. We are aware that University of Edinburgh has a Task Group, convened by the Principal, to consider possible models which would comply with the Act. We need to ensure that our governing bodies represent frontline staff, and students and something like this would be welcome here. We had already flagged concerns that the restructure of the University will reduce representation on Senate and are awaiting a response on this. In addition we are concerned at reports from some faculties here that opportunities to stand for Senate are not communicated in timely ways, and that the process for election is not open or transparent. This too has to be investigated and improved.

Staff and students are rightly concerned that the University will appoint another VC who wreaks yet more damage. UCU will be arguing forcefully for a stronger voice for frontline staff and students in the selection process. We will continue to push for better governance. It is time for everyone who is concerned about our University to raise their voices – it is time we took back control.