League tables: the full picture

The recent email to all staff trumpeted an improvement in the Sunday Times league table position for Birmingham University. But we have to point out that this email cherry-picked the single ranking out of seven national and international indicators to show an improvement for Birmingham. In all of the other tables, Birmingham flatlines or deteriorates, as Fig 1 and Fig 2 reveal.

Fig 1. Birmingham’s national rankings

The figures for our international standing are even worse: as Fig 2 shows, the University of Birmingham’s position in the 2012-13 World University Rankings has fallen for the third year in succession, deteriorating this year to its lowest position ever. At position 158, we now stand ten places lower than in 2011-12.

Any rankings, of course, have to be treated with caution but for international comparisons the THE World Rankings are the industry-standard, and are the most widely respected indicator of performance across the sector. Birmingham’s consistent fall, without the rises that our ‘sister universities’ Leeds and Manchester saw in 2011-12, is a cause for serious concern.

Next to the findings on bullying and stress made in the recent UCU questionnaire to staff in all HEIs, these figures make for worrying reading. Birmingham comes in the bottom 20 for well-being and stress – along with Bournemouth, Bradford and London Met. The ‘best 20’ group for well being contained universities such as Cambridge, LSE and Oxford.

Fig 2. Birmingham’s THE international ranking next to Manchester and Leeds

So, there is evidently no benefit accruing from the stress being imposed on staff in the name of improved ‘performance’. Even on the measures that the management like to talk about, we are slipping down nearly all of the tables. We’re amongst the worst universities for stress and we’re getting worse in international standing. It’s particularly significant in the context of all these performance measures that we do so poorly in staff-student ratios: we are currently ranked 249th in the QS Rankings on this measure (one of the lowest rankings for universities in the Russell Group) and we currently stand at position 31 nationally in the Guardian league tables just behind Queens Belfast, Sheffield and Coventry, with a staff student ratio of 15.5-1 despite being ranked 8th in terms of spending per student. It’s no wonder the University makes a huge profit: it spends nothing on improving staff-student ratios!

Actually, there are many possible reasons for the steady decline in Birmingham’s performance. Another strong contender lies in the distancing of ‘on the ground’ staff from key decisions made about policy and strategy. (Ineffectual ‘Meet the vice-chancellor’ sessions are no substitute for proper staff participation in decision making: staff understand this, and it’s no surprise that hardly any academic staff turn up.) Deliberately to exclude staff from decision making is to eliminate the best source of knowledge about how teaching and research are actually operating in the University. Staff feel excluded. Instead of being partners in decision making, we are lectured at and hectored. The result is a serious drop in morale.

We wish to work with University management to reverse this decline and to help restore our University’s standing and we shall be putting to the vicechancellor proposals on how staff may be actively involved at every level of decision making.

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