The league table ranks universities with regard to “teaching excellence” in order to help prospective students compare different higher education institutions. Reviewed by a group of experts, it uses data from the National Student Survey of final year students, spending per student, staff-student ratios and other measures.
John Keighren, Head of Media Relations at the University, told MULE it is not UoM’s policy to comment on specific league tables even when it performs well.
“This latest table in the Guardian is one of a plethora of league tables which use wildly varying sets of measures and weightings. In this case, there is no measure of research excellence, which clearly affects Manchester’s position,” he said.
This has however been the source of major criticism from contemporary students, many of whom feel that the University is fixated on postgraduate studies and its reputation as a research centre to the detriment of undergraduates. Former elected officers at the Students Union (UMSU) have argued for instance that the ‘mixed funding’ – or privatisation – approach taken by outgoing Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert has significantly contributed to the sense that UoM cares more about its brand and profits than student satisfaction.
The University, formed by the merger between the Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST in 2004, has since then employed a number of high-profile figures such as Martin Amis and Joe Stiglitz as visiting professors. While celebrities like these have been paid huge sums of money for making only token appearances, popular and acclaimed academics like Terry Eagleton and Hillel Steiner have been forced out.
In 2008 hundreds of students organised a mass demonstration and building occupation under the banner ‘Reclaim the Uni’, protesting against poor teaching standards and limited access to University resources and lecturers. They demanded more input in UoM decision-making and a refocusing on quality teaching for undergraduates.
The response from VC Gilbert that students should be “grateful” for the University’s research reputation as adding value to their degrees exemplified the disconnection between the management’s and many students’ idea of education and reinforced students’ concerns of being treated as “cash cows”.
“It is now run like a business. Businesses are always asking themselves two questions: how much cheaper can we do things without losing customers and how much can we charge without losing customers? Some students are on courses where 20 years ago they would have got 200 hours a year – but now that’s down to 86. This has been brewing for some time,” said then-UMSU General Secretary Tom Skinner at the time.
UoM management has been worried about its slipping reputation for some time. Alan Gilbert’s replacement as Vice-Chancellor is expected to be announced in the coming months, but the University is refusing to disclose its shortlist either before or after the decision is made, something unlikely to help its relationship with students wanting more influence over UoM’s priorities and policies.
Current UMSU General Secretary Gabriel Hassan said to MULE that the University is in “strong financial position” and well-placed to address students’ concerns in the near future. But with Osborne’s axe poised and higher education predicted to take more than its share of cuts, how long before student agitation reaches boiling point again?