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Birkbeck to leave UK university league tables

Domestic rankings do not give accurate picture of the strengths of the College, but Birkbeck will remain part of the international listings.

Students on Birkbeck's Malet street campus as the College announces withdrawal from league tables.

Birkbeck, University of London has announced it is to withdraw from UK university rankings because the methodologies do not fairly recognise its strengths or represent it in a way helpful to students.

Birkbeck’s teaching and research continue to be highly-rated in public assessments of teaching and research excellence. It is one of only 24 non-specialist universities in the UK that is in both the top 25% for research quality (measured by REF score) and to hold at least a Silver TEF award. REF and TEF outcomes are based on peer-led processes as part of a proper framework of public accountability. The College believes that these provide an accurate reflection of its excellence, unlike the very different league tables produced by newspapers and media organisations.

The College is pulling out of future domestic tables because, despite having highly-rated teaching and research, other factors caused by its unique teaching model and unrelated to its performance push it significantly down the ratings.

Birkbeck’s Governors have concluded it would be better to be absent from the tables than to have an entry which gives a totally misleading view of the College.

It will continue to be included in international tables which have a different emphasis and draw on measures such as the college’s research, teaching and international reputation.

It has pursued its mission to further the education of working people and extend opportunities to the wider community for almost two centuries.

However, league table methodologies fail to do justice to Birkbeck’s unique mission because they reward:

  • Entry tariffs – UK rankings reward universities for high entry grades, measuring inputs rather than outcomes. Birkbeck admits a wide range of students at different stages of their lives to widen access to education. To do this it has flexible entry requirements rather than strict rules about A level grades – the majority of students are mature and while many have valuable work experience, they may have been outside formal education for some time. Birkbeck’s flexible entry grades have the effect of pulling it down the rankings and, in effect, this penalises the College for its mission.
  • Retention rates – Birkbeck’s students are often working or caring during the day and more vulnerable to changes in circumstances elsewhere in their lives. To compare this cohort with school leavers learning through daytime teaching elsewhere in the sector is misleading. Tables measure full-time students only. Birkbeck actually has one of the highest completion rates for part-time students in the sector. This reflects our expertise in supporting students combining work, family and other commitments with their degrees.
  • Student spend – As Birkbeck students are taught in the evening, and often work during the day, the College does not provide its own dedicated leisure facilities (although students have access to the facilities shared by all members of the University of London). Again these mean Birkbeck’s score is reduced in domestic tables.

Professor David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, University of London, said: “Essentially Birkbeck is being penalised for having a different teaching model to all other UK universities.

“People will assume this is a case of sour grapes because we don’t do well. But the truth is that Birkbeck is doing exceptionally well in the ways that matter most – our teaching and research are excellent and we are fulfilling our mission to open up high quality education to a broader range of students.

“The tables struggle to deal with anything other than a campus university catering to 18-year-olds who have just moved away from home.

“We are poorly served by these tables and so are the students who glance at our position and may be put off from studying here.”

A measure of the discrepancy was given by Birkbeck finishing in 115th position out of 121 universities in the most recent Guardian university league tables, dragged down hugely by its retention rate, entry grade tariff and student spend. However in the recently published Times Higher Education World University Rankings which rely more heavily on research, teaching and reputation, Birkbeck is 40th out of 98 UK institutions.

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