League Tables and University Strategy – a Dangerous Relationship?

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin Partnership, one of the sponsors of the AHUA Spring Conference 2018. Here she asks whether league tables help or hinder the development of a strong institutional strategy.

To say that the HE sector is weathering an almighty storm is to point out the obvious. Demographics, economics and oodles of politics are causing significant disruption. Our institutions need agile strategies to respond to the changing market and to the specific effects it is having on their goals.

Many sector commentators are arguing that there is no longer any room for a standard textbook approach (if there ever was). The strategy that worked in one institution will not convert to another and, they argue, survival lies in differentiation.

This might lead us to wonder whether the sector’s predilection for league tables may be hindering our ability to develop our institutional strategies. Whilst most league tables collect the right performance data, the weightings they give to create a league table play to homogeneity in the sector, not difference. The increasing move to a diverse range of specific league tables points to our desire to understand and compare differences in the sector.

League tables can also be unsympathetic to the long-term journey an institution may be on – you may be punished by a fall in league table position for doing the right things for the long-term health of your institution. They may also tell a misleading story to governing bodies whose non-exec members may not understand, or be given the detailed information required to interpret the story they are telling.

There is danger in using league tables as a proxy for performance and thereby not undertaking the deep analysis of the unique position an institution is in – the devil (particularly in difficult times) is in the detail. What measures matter most to your institution? What is your long-term journey on these measures? What are they telling you about how successful your current strategy is?

I’ve shared my own views on LinkedIn. Then, at the AHUA conference this year we will be exploring this topic by debating the motion: “This house believes that a focus on university league tables is damaging to strategic planning.” The panel will explore whether league tables provide a good proxy for performance, whether we are too driven by league table positions (or not enough), and whether league tables reward or hinder market diversity.

We will bring together designers of the league tables with experts in university strategy to lead the debate and stimulate discussion with conference delegates.  Our aim is to reach a shared view as to how league tables can best be used to inform the development of strategy and the monitoring and reporting on progress. And we don’t have to wait until the conference to get started. Why not share your views?

Halpin Partnership is a management consultancy with a difference. Our team of consulting fellows have deep knowledge of the HE sector and understand the challenges the sector faces. We will work with you to diagnose the problems and find solutions. We tailor-make our work to suit your needs, culture and budget. We know that one size does not fit all.