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League tables, by their very nature, always produce top and bottom institutions or individuals, even if all members are dripping in quality, or lack it. Rank in order Beethoven and Mozart. One will be top, one will be bottom.

The news that abattoirs had been rank-ordered and put in a league table was no surprise. This little piggy didn't go to market, this little piggy stayed at home, so the abattoir's batting average went down. Relegation loomed, but to where?

The desire to measure and weigh every activity and translate the results into sports-page form shows no sign of diminishing. Whether or not it makes sense in the particular circumstance, human achievement continues to be rated and ranked.

The influence of league tables in education is assumed to be positive. The weak will get off their backsides and strive; the strong, meanwhile, strain every sinew to maintain their position. The prime assumption is that everyone is competitive and wants to be top. Nobody ever rolls over.

League table fall-out has saturated conversation in universities: "We were given a 4 in the last Research Assessment Exercise, but we should get a 5 or a 5-star next time", "He got 1s on his teaching, but it hasn't helped him get promotion"; "If we get Ivy League status it may help us bring in more overseas students". Whether performance matches conversational intent, however, is another matter.

The first problem is with the appeal of league tables themselves. Whenever quantified data have been produced, the funding council has been eager to tell journalists that they must not be put in league-table form, as this would distort the true picture. That strategy has about as much chance of success as urging alcoholics to switch to cold tea.

A few years ago, when "degree completion rates" were in the news, one newspaper produced a league table of the top 10 universities, in various subjects. I was relieved to see my own department in it, but surprised to discover that a number of universities tied in first place, with a 100 per cent degree completion rate.

Further scrutiny revealed that all of them were small. Indeed, one university had produced only one graduate, and that after six years of study. What relief they must have felt that the poor beggar did not fail. They would have been bottom of the table, and relegated to the Beazer Homes League.

Look carefully at the national league tables of primary schools. Many of those obtaining 100 per cent, and celebrated as "Britain's best schools" are small, with only a dozen or 15 pupils in the 11-year-old age group. Next year they could sink into oblivion and be deemed failures. In certain kinds of league, the advantage of being small is double-edged.

Another problem with league tables is that, by their very nature, they always produce top and bottom institutions or individuals, even if all members are dripping in quality, or lack it. Rank in order Beethoven and Mozart. One will be top, one will be bottom.

A league table, of Nobel Prize winners, convicts or archangels, produces a best and worst, unless they are all equal. The manager of the bottom team of archangels then comes under pressure to resign, the "worst" Nobel Prize winner feels a fraud, and the top of the "nicest arsonist" league will probably get a CBE in the next honours list.

Worse than being the victim of a league table is to become the sponsor of one. The effect on the individuals who do the assessing can be profound. Assessors become powerful and cosseted figures. As the chairman of one assessment panel used to remark, "No university's grading has ever suffered as a result of providing us with an excellent dinner."

Before long everything is there to be rated - three out of 10 for the hotel breakfast; five, shading six for the room; nine out of 10 for the taxi driver; one out of 10 for the Acme Railway Company. The drive to assess can seep into the very pores.

Either league tables measure only the measurable and easily quantifiable, or they purport to grade and rank accurately what is diffuse and elusive, when in practice they do not. The, punters, meanwhile, provide whatever will enhance their position most.

You want quantity? I'll write six articles. Books count more than articles? I'll put them into one book instead. Failing students get you a bad mark? Kick out droves of them at the end of their first year. Pass rates count most? We'll allow only the safe bets to enter. "Average grade" is the criterion? Ignore high-flyers - they are in the bag - and concentrate on borderline cases.

Before long vice-chancellors will talk in football cliches: "Come the end of the semester, Brian, we'll be there or thereabouts"; "It was a year of two halves"; "We take each RAE as it comes, but we were over the moon at the last result". Some have already started.

The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter.