How to win friends and misuse statistics

The 2016 version of one of the big league tables is out, accompanied by a commentary. The commentary is all about how the huge rise in tuition fees several years ago resulted in an equally huge increase in services University’s offer. (Actually, this may have had more to do with the fact that bond yields were historically low; so Universities could borrow more cheaply.)

One piece of evidence for this was the drop in SSR — student to staff ratio — over the period. Great. Except… this figure is not by any means equivalent to ‘class sizes’, as the commentary claims. Indeed, the claim is made that investment in advance of the Research Excellence Framework contributed to lowering this statistic. RAE investment is not primarily investment in teachers. Instead, it is likely investment in senior researchers, whom undergraduates will never see; and in part-time or zero-hours teachers who soak up the load so that headline staff can work on that research project.  The number of academic bodies around the place rises, relative to student numbers, but class sizes may in fact go up, as students are herded into big rooms to be taught by a handful of faces whose photographs were not in the prospectus.

And by the way, this is another of the league tables that includes entry points as a measure of quality. People across the University world have been complaining about this for years, but one more time: Imagine, for a moment, that you are reading a movie review. The review says that the plot is incomprehensible and silly, the acting wooden, and the direction lazy. But, it concludes, the film is popular among cinema-goers (who have never seen the movie), and therefore it must be good. Five stars! Movie of the year!

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