Educated but Ignorant

HE Festival of Data 2019: Part 2

“Hello, I’m Dr Tobe and I’m educated but ignorant”.

I think this will have to be my new opening line in conversations. A great way for people in Universities to describe themselves. But where did I get it from? Well, I’ve just been to the HE Festival of Data at the University of Huddersfield and found it to be a fascinating and enlightening event. The phrase comes from one of the main talks, this one by Sally Turnbull, Director of Planning & Insight at University of Central Lancashire (I’ll be writing about some of the others later). Sally was talking about University League tables. I suspect a lot of people in Universities would consider that to be a dry as dust subject and would rather gnaw off their own leg than attend a talk on such as subject but this one was well worth the effort. Sally had been tasked with writing ‘A Guide to UK League Tables in Higher Education‘ and when she asked about the target audience was told it should be aimed at the ‘educated but ignorant’. Most people reading this would probably consider themselves to be educated, but how many would admit to ignorance? Yet as Confucius once said, (yes really, he did), “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”. Where the creation of University League Tables is concerned I am prepared to admit to the astonishing depth of my ignorance. Thankfully Sally, through her talk and report, has done something to knock the edge off that. 

This isn’t the place to talk about all the data in the UK University League Tables, you can read Sally’s report for that, but I thought I would share a couple of tidbits from her talk. 

‘Completion’ is included as a new metric in The Guardian League Table, so is not in the report. It is not, as you might imagine, the number of students who succeed in their studies. It is, in reality a modelled projection of what could be happening about now, based on data from a few years ago. Wait, what? Is that going to be even close to reality? What if things have changed?

‘Student:Staff Ratios’ are important statistics but have a number of issues in the league tables. Perhaps the most troubling is that the only ‘coding system’ available to link staff to students is the HESA cost centre coding. A significant problem with using cost centres is that HE Institutions may not code staff and students to the same cost centre. Hmm.

Tales like these about the data shouldn’t distract from the fact that producing the league tables at all is a very difficult undertaking. They are trying to simplify an extraordinarily diverse sector and they do tell us something worthwhile about what is going on in Universities, just not necessarily what people might think they are saying. They also don’t really tell prospective students and their families what they want to know. So what do prospective students really want to know? According to Sally they want to know:

  • What do they need to do to get in?
  • How big are their classes going to be?
  • What are their fellow students going to be like?
  • What do others do with that degree after they graduate?

Let’s see some of that in league tables.

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