April McMahon: “years of under-investment” as cause for drop in league tables

PROFESSOR April McMahon, the Vice-Chancellor, has released a blog in which she outlines her thoughts on Aberystwyth University’s fall in the league tables.

April McMahon

Professor April McMahon, Aberystwyth University Vice Chancellor

McMahon points to “many years of under-investment” and that the institution is now “playing catch-up”  through a programme of heavy investment in the University.

Professor McMahon has come under pressure recently, due to concerns raised over the fall in league tables and student numbers.

Within the blog, McMahon stated that:

“Let’s be honest about it. League table performance over the past several years reflects many years of under-investment at Aberystwyth University.

“This is something that our current investment programme is putting right; but we’re playing catch-up and our competitors are not going to stand back and wait for us.”

This year, Aberystwyth has seen a fall in the rankings of a number of league tables. Firstly, in May this year, the 2015 Complete University Guide saw Aberystwyth fall 17 places to 87th. The drop in rankings came only a month after second year computer science student Kieron O’Shea began a petition calling on the Vice-Chancellor to resign.

In June, Aberystwyth saw Wales’ biggest drop, with a fall of 18 places in the Guardian University Guide to 106th out of 116 institutions in the UK. The recent release of rankings for the The Times and The Sunday Times also saw Aberystwyth drop down the rankings, with an 11 place drop, to 93rd. Following this, The Times and Sunday Times profile on Aberystwyth University states that:

“Aberystwyth has set itself the goal of becoming one of the top 30 universities in the UK and the top 250 in the world by 2017. It is a tall order where The Times and The Sunday Times league table is concerned, with the university presently in danger of falling out of our top 100, dropping 11 places this year after last year’s 35-place fall.”

An online petition was started by staff and students with the goal to oust Professor McMahon from her post. The petition cites the university’s dip in rankings and the figure released by the Cambrian News that showed applications to the University have fallen by almost 25% as reasoning for the petition. The petition has received 1,153 signatures so far.

Continuing in the blog, Professor McMahon stated:

“Given the fact that Aber has fallen in a number of the national tables over the past several years, we can expect the same round of questions as we’ve received for the past few rounds of tables.

“The answers are the same too – we’ve predicted these falls; we’re working on it; things are stabilising; and we have some fantastically good news to celebrate.

“It would be easy to disparage or argue against the league tables – they contradict each other; the methodology is inconsistent and sometimes downright odd; they measure very different things… However, whatever we might think of the tables, people use them – prospective students and parents refer to them in making decisions, and you can’t blame them for using comparative data whenever it’s available, though we’d argue for taking them with a decent pinch of salt.”

Aberystwyth student satisfaction remained level at 83% this year in the National Student Survey (NSS) results. 86% of Aberystwyth University students said they were satisfied with the quality of teaching on their course, up from 84% in 2013. Satisfaction with learning resources also increased to 82%. With regards to the NSS Results, Pro Vice-Chancellor Rebecca Davies said;

“This year’s NSS clearly shows that students are beginning to reap the benefits of the new facilities that are coming on stream at Aberystwyth University.

McMahon references the NSS stabilising in the blog and calls this an “indication that we’re turning the corner.”

Within the blog, Professor McMahon also draws attention to Aberystwyth’s investment programme, and how more than £100m is being invested into improvements for the university, including new accommodation and teaching facilities, she said:

“Aberystwyth students are engaged, vocal and care about their university, which is why they don’t hold back in telling us what we need to do to make it better. And we listen, and act. But it takes a while to work through to the league tables,”

“League tables use data from several years so it is to be expected that after putting all the appropriate mechanisms in place to address issues, it will still take some time for the indicators to catch up. Nobody is twiddling their thumbs and hoping that will just happen.

“We’re investing, improving, enhancing; we’re confronting long-standing problems; we’re upping our game. People talk about ‘green shoots’ of recovery – and there are a lot of them about here.”

Professor McMahon joined Aberystwyth from the University of Edinburgh in 2011, where she was the Vice-Principal for planning, resources and research policy. An ASM review released earlier this year of  her strategic plan for Aberystwyth, 2 years in; can be found here.