Last month saw the publication of the Guardian university league tables for 2019, and the surprise news that Kingston University has jumped 23 places since last year – up from 81 to 58. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to imagine how a university that is undergoing such painful restructuring and downsizing through its ‘Plan 2020’ could improve so rapidly and so quickly – any fruits from this process would only have been produced gradually, over time. Meanwhile, in the rival Complete University Guide league tables, which appeared a couple of weeks before, Kingston registered a more modest and less implausible improvement, up from 102 to 95.
One person who has cast doubt on the accuracy of the Guardian league tables is Martin McQuillan, Kingston’s very own former Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation, now editor of the obscure ‘*Research’ outfit. After the league tables were published, McQuillan published an article, written by a Chris Parr, noting that ‘“Dramatic shifts” in the year-on-year results of the Guardian’s UK university rankings call their credibility into question’, with for example City, University of London, dropping 63 places in just twelve months, while Heriot-Watt dropped 42 places, Middlesex dropped 42 places, Aberystwyth rising 36 places and Derby rising 25 places. The article quotes a ‘rankings critic’, Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at Imperial College, London: ‘The dramatic shifts in rank for some institutions are a concern for The Guardian, and for anyone relying on their published rankings’. It turns out that the wild fluctuations reflect the fact that the methodology has been changed; i.e. the goalposts have been moved. ‘Given the change in methodology this year…any large shifts in position shouldn’t be given any credence’, said Curry.
Since the goalposts have been moved in a way that has benefited Kingston, the question arises as to whether this was coincidental. In this context, it is interesting to note that the Guardian league tables were compiled by one Matt Hiely-Rayner (pictured above). The Guardian website notes: ‘Matt is the director of Intelligent Metrix, an independent consultancy specialising in measures of higher education performance and activity. It has been compiling the undergraduate and postgraduate university guides for the Guardian since 2010’. The Guardian website does not mention, however, that Hiely-Rayner is also the Head of Planning at Kingston University, and therefore holds a senior administrative position at one of the universities he was evaluating. By any reasonable standard, this represents a serious conflict of interest.
That the Guardian university league table figures are problematic are amply demonstrated by the figures for the Student to Staff Ratio (SSR). As readers will be aware, Kingston is currently undergoing a brutal downsizing and restructuring under the name of ‘Plan2020’. According to the Plan2020 consultation proposal of January 2017, certain departments were targeted for academic staff cuts as follows:
Subject area Current staff (FTE) Proposed staff (FTE) 2017/8 Difference
Music 12.9 6.9 -6.0
Economics 19.7 13 -6.7
Politics 14.4 10.4 -4.0
These targets were met or exceeded; in other words, the Music, Economics and Politics departments all suffered cuts of between a quarter and half. Bizarrely, however, the three departments registered improvements in their SSRs according to the Guardian university league table (ULT):
Subject area Guardian ULT SSR 2018 Guardian ULT SSR 2019
How is it possible for departments that have suffered such drastic cuts in their academic staff actually to improve their SSRs so significantly ? It is possible that part of the reason may be falling student numbers, but the most likely explanation is that Kingston University, with the guidance of Matt Hiely-Rayner, has found a way to fiddle the figures. That the SSRs for the three departments in question are so suspiciously uniform lends credence to this supposition. Interesting in this context is a comment posted recently at the Kingston University London Dissenter’s Blog: ‘Planning and HR have instructed me to fiddle the hesa staff return for years so nothing new here. Technicians and administrators are even being returned as being academic staff in order to improve the SSR figures. Bit devious if you ask me, but if it gets bums on seats and gets us up that table’.
The evidence therefore suggests that Kingston University’s implausible overall jump up the Guardian league table is a reflection of statistical manipulation rather than any actual improvement.
Now that the SMT has definitely decided to axe the entire History department, it will be interesting to see what statistics will be dredged up to justify this brutal measure. The department was not allowed to recruit new students last year, indicating that the decision to close it had already been taken, but staff were kept hanging until a couple of weeks ago, when they were finally told that the department would definitely close. The cynicism of the Kingston University SMT always exceeds expectations.