Sport is to blame for misleading tables

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THE SPORTS world has a lot to answer for - league tables have become a national (and even an international) obsession. Nowhere is this clearer than in education: we now have league tables for school exam performance, we have league tables for universities and we have league tables for business schools.

But where the ranking of the education world differs vastly from sport is that it is not based on a points-per-match system and it does not openly fluctuate on a Saturday-by-Saturday basis: it is simply based on subjective analysis - choose your own criteria and away you go.

Rarely do such rankings take into account the vast differences of the education providers they monitor - in my own world, that of the business school, there are huge differences in the provision offered by Harvard and Henley, by Ashridge and Aston, and by the International Institute for Management Development and the Open University. The UK alone has well over 100 business schools and all are different. Some are part of the university system (with a large focus on qualifications at undergraduate and postgraduate level). Others are independently run colleges (serving senior executives and the needs of companies on an individual basis).

The media hunger for producing rankings in business schools started in the United States (where Businessweek magazine has had an influential role). Now this feeding frenzy is becoming evident on newsagents' shelves in Britain. Last month Sunday Business produced its Top 10 lists of business schools in the UK and the US, this month Management Today has published its "premier league" and the Financial Times is on the way to producing rankings of full-time MBA courses and of business school research. Their methodologies and criteria are all different but none are comparing like with like.

All this leaves the consumer bewitched, bothered and bewildered. Who's telling the truth? Whose advice should they rely on? And it leaves the providers highly frustrated that their offering is being twisted and tainted according to the whim of the publisher - with serious implications for future reputation.

This picture is clearest in the university sector. The Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times all produced versions of rankings this year in order to provide food for thought when considering where to spend your pounds 1,000-a-year tuition fee.

The "new universities," in particular, are fed up with being seen as the bottom of the barrel. Their right to educate a community is being heavily and openly questioned without the chance to explain that they are different. They were never intended to be like Oxford and Cambridge. They serve a market just as valid (and, according to employers, their graduates are just as astute and, in many cases, often far more employable).

Sure, we in education have to recognise standards and measure ourselves against others, but until there is an objective way of producing an agreed set of criteria which takes differences into account then we are never going to achieve the impartial and independent display that education's "consumers" deserve when making their minds up on where to study.

There are government and agency-led guidelines (such as teaching standards and research assessment exercise ratings in public sector universities), and stamps of approval for particular courses in the form of accreditation from recognised awarding bodies and professional institutes (such as the Association of MBAs for MBA degrees). But, by far the most qualified advisers on schools, universities and business schools are those who have previously participated in the particular experience on offer.

Ray Wild is principal of Henley Management College.