Top of the Whats? Marketing UK Psychology Departments

Last week I spoke about the futility of thinking positions in league tables mean very much (apart from marketing). Strangely, some people haven’t been listening! VCs from around the country have been wheeled out to talk about their Gold TEFs, just as they were lauding their Athena Swan awards and all manner of REF permutations. But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. The CMA means that any claims made on webpages/brochures have to be accurate. This has led, unsurprisingly, to a proliferation of ingenious and selective statistics adorning departmental “about us” pages online.


Colonel Gaddafi – also a great lover of medals…


What doesn’t help is that there are multiple sources you can cite for your rankings, ratings and awards: with REF,  TEF, NSS and so on you can include the main component but you can also cite a rank in any one of the many individual elements. Then there are newspaper league tables: Guardian, Complete University Guide, Times, Sunday Times, QS… and, of course, you can cite any components you want of those and, for all of the above, historical data going back to the beginning of such things a decade or more ago. With such a range of statistics to select, it’s a wonder any department isn’t in the top 10 of at least something. It’s enough to make you call for a neat system of, say, three medals, to evaluate performance. Then again, maybe not! See, again, last week’s blog

So, with that in mind, I have been on a brief online tour of every psychology department in the UK’s webpages (that I could find, some don’t have one). A quick note on my general approach to this is at the bottom of the post… Scientific, it ain’t.

How then do UK Psychology departments strut their stuff online? There seems to be a trend. There are those “top” Russell Group institutions who really can’t be doing with statistics and merely give a handful of casual statements about being brilliant. Less is more and, anyway, maybe there’s something a touch vulgar about this whole marketing business. So Oxford throw in that they’re “1st in the REF” and Cambridge, modestly, that they are “3rd in the world (QS)”. UCL don’t even bother with stats and just say they’re “world leading”. But I reckon around 20 departments are claiming that. At King’s IoPPN we say we’re the world’s second largest and leading centre for research and education in mental health (after Harvard – trust me, it’s CMA compliant), peppered with the odd “world-renowned” and “world class”.

Other Russell Group departments are a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of self-publicity. Size matters for Cardiff too, “one of the largest and best departments in the UK” and then a challengeable claim that, Cardiff psychology “consistently obtain the highest scores possible for our research”. Possible for who? Cardiff? Harvard? Anyone? Bristol – pretty much rock bottom on scores for diversity and state school admissions – just have “an elite science faculty” (someone at Bristol hire a copy editor!)

Russell Group newcomers, York, adopt a curious strategy, describing themselves as “one of the world’s top psychology departments” and then linking through to the QS rankings which shows them unclassified in the #51-100 range. Hmmm, that’s a crowded summit! More obscure, still, St Andrews’ pages qualify assertions of being world class with a legally compliant statement that they have been in the “top category in every research assessment exercise”. That’s like saying Leicester City won every Premier League in 2016. Both St Andrews and York are somewhat cagey on REF2014 (I guess the penny dropped that it’s power tables that matter now)! Birmingham just say they’re, “Ranked among top 5 departments for research”; Exeter, rather modestly, announce that they’re, “top 100 worldwide for psychology” – clever reverse psychology, Exeter, but York got there first!

What of the others? Well, as you look around you see an increasing creativity in the appropriation of statistics. I’ve picked out a few that catch the eye: Nottingham Trent, say they (not, interestingly the students), are, “5th satisfied with quality of course, 6th satisfied with assessment and feedback (Guardian 2016)” and that their “research impact and output is the highest of any UK psychology department with an equivalent research environment.” Clever, you can’t challenge that without a close scan of scores in each of the REF categories and agreeing criteria for equivalence. Good job, NTU CMA manager. Stats geeks at Lincoln have been hard at work on the NSS spreadsheets to prise out extra value: “5th/114 in 2018 [Guardian] for per cent satisfied with feedback” and “11th average all questions”. Quite a few have been getting down and dirty with NSS stats on Excel from a couple of year’s back: “Psychology at Edge Hill University is ranked in the top 10 in the UK for both Assessment and Feedback and Personal Development, as well being ranked in the top 20 when averaging all other measures that assess the quality of Psychology Degrees in the UK (National Student Survey, 2016).”

Another strategy is to limit the scope of your competitor group: Abertay Dundee are “… the highest rated modern University in Scotland for psychology research in the UK Research Excellence Framework 2014”. Reading psychology, intriguingly, is quiet about psychology but, “Top 10 in Aural and Oral Sciences 2017” [CUG]. Or you can take a different tack – invent a competitor group? Loughborough‘s psychologists are, apparently, members of the “golden six of elite universities”. Who are the other five? This feels like an affluent yet shadowy cartel – I want in! For me, Essex win marks for mixing fact and whimsy, declaring themselves to be, not only a “leading centre for research and education in psychology” but also an “intellectual playground” (yeah, I’ve been at some conferences like that and believe me, I was happy to get back to lessons!)


Of the around 100 (very ballpark) psychology departments going I have counted at least 30 claiming to be “Top 10”. And no end of others claiming to be world leading. Do they believe any of it? Do they care? You know, I think some staff probably do get kudos from it. And what’s wrong with feeling good about yourself or making yourself feel a bit better? Nothing. But don’t swallow the massaged statistics hook, line and sinker. What matters is the science and the quality of the teaching, and that you’re happy and productive in your work.

Perhaps most inventive are those that play with dates. You also wonder when some departments last updated their webpages!  The University of Buckingham has a no-holes-barred approach to marketing – don’t react to the stats, make them work for you! If you land on their webpages you are greeted with: “Welcome to the Psychology Department at the University of Buckingham, the number one university for student satisfaction in the UK (National Student Survey 2006-2015).” That, I think, is averaging across that period but who can tell how they arrived at that ranking? Still, it’s all downhill from there, folks… whenever that was.

 * Departmental webpages were accessed between 28 and 29 June 2017. usually the “about us” to get a picture beyond the applications base, or prospectus parts of webpages.Very much not a scientific approach guided by ease of googling (which I suppose is a proxy for something).

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