Readers of a certain age will remember Nigel Molesworth, the self-styled ”curse of St. Custard’s”. Molesworth’s accounts of life at this minor private school, related in execrable spelling, ran through a series of books by Geoffrey Willans illustrated by Ronald Searle in the 1950s and were reissued as a Penguin Classic in 2000. In the late 1980s, the humorist Simon Brett imagined Molesworth’s life as an adult in How to Stay Topp. The adult Molesworth’s spelling was no better than the schoolboy’s and he brought the same sardonic and anarchic Molesworth humour, aghast at the world around him.
How to stay top(p) is a question which we are considering at the IOE. Just a couple of weeks ago, the annual QS league tables of universities by subject were published and the IOE came top – the world’s best – in education. The number one position was a rise from seventh in 2013, and meant we had leapfrogged our peers internationally, including Harvard, Stanford and Melbourne.
University league tables are a growth industry of the early twenty-first century. They have numerous critics: league tables are a symptom of the neoliberal globalisation of higher education; they are empirically questionable; the international ones discriminate wildly in favour of universities fortunate enough to be Anglophone; they prioritise research (where metrics can be constructed) and are then used by prospective students as indices of teaching quality (where comparative metrics are almost impossible to construct); they play strongly to the performance of those universities which are already well-known. And so on.
Most of us regard university league tables as utterly unreliable – until, that is, we do well in them, at which point doubts recede. They are, undeniably, a powerful marketing tool, and since the IOE topped the QS table, my email inbox has seen a marked increase in correspondence from international agencies of one sort or another. Doing well matters. The QS result comes hard on the heels of the OFSTED inspection of our teacher training provision, which awarded us top grades on every criterion on every phase (primary, secondary and further education) – and on the IOE topping the National Student Survey in 2013.
The IOE has always been internationally minded and has a global reach. We attract students from over a hundred countries and lead consultancy or research programmes on four continents. Today we are launching a global doctoral collaboration in partnership with Melbourne Graduate School of Education (second in QS) and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto (ninth in QS). We are actively planning the fifth biennial research conference which we run with Beijing Normal University (43rd in QS), this Autumn in London. We have joint programmes with NIE at Nanyang Technological University (14th). Within the last eighteen months I have lectured at OISE (9th), at Harvard (3rd) and at Columbia (11th). My colleagues work on initiatives around the world. Our commitment to education and applied social science is global and expansive.
At the same time, we are currently consulting on a proposed merger of the IOE with University College London. Like IOE, UCL is a global brand – its strap line is “London’s Global University”. For IOE, from a position of strength, a merger with UCL offers several advantages: further global reach, stronger inter- and cross-disciplinary working and the opportunity to take our work to the next level in terms of scale and ambition. It’s notable that the IOE is now the only institution in the QS top 50 for Education, let alone the top 10, which is not affiliated with a larger multi-faculty university.
But of course, league tables do not drive strategic decision making – as Molesworth would write – “as any fule kno”. For the IOE three interlinked things matter: our ability to work locally with schools and teachers, not least in London; our ability to work nationally – and increasingly internationally – with policy makers; and our ability to exercise global leadership in our disciplines. The dynamics of higher education are changing. Successful universities think globally and expansively. The IOE has done extra-ordinarily well to entrench its position in a global elite, but we need to think imaginatively and intelligently about how to ensure that we thrive and develop in the future, and the merger with UCL will allow significant investment and expansion.
For the avoidance of doubt, however, we shall not be offering a senior post to Nigel Molesworth (as any fule kno).