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Levelling the playing field: The effect of including widening participation in university league tables

Hubbard, Katharine; Nattrass, Stuart; O'Neill, Michael


Stuart Nattrass

Michael O'Neill


Universities are ranked in University League Tables (ULTs). Sustained academic criticism of the rationale and methodology of ULTs has not stopped these rankings exerting considerable pressure on the decisions of University managers. Widening Participation (WP) is not currently incorporated into ULTs, despite regulatory and ethical requirements for universities to diversify student intake. In this article, we explore how current ULT metrics for UK Universities relate to WP. Over 75% of league table metrics are negatively related to WP, so institutions with a diverse student body are significantly more likely to be lower down in the league tables. The worst relationship with WP is for entry standards. Universities who recruit high performing students are actively rewarded in the league tables; this fails to recognise that students with high entry grades are more likely to come from privileged backgrounds. We then develop a ULT which includes a WP score as an explicit league table metric. Our WP-adjusted table removes the negative relationship between WP and league table rank, and results in a somewhat fairer comparison between universities of different stated mission groups. We demonstrate how straightforward it could be to include WP in ULTs using publicly available data. We conclude that ULT compilers have an ethical duty to improve their definition of a ‘good’ university, which in the current UK HE environment must include WP. We believe this should be an urgent priority for the sector, so that Universities with a commitment to widening participation can be recognised and rewarded.


Hubbard, K., Nattrass, S., & O'Neill, M. (2021). Levelling the playing field: The effect of including widening participation in university league tables. International Review of Education, 67, 273–304.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 1, 2020
Online Publication Date Dec 8, 2020
Publication Date 2021
Deposit Date Sep 5, 2020
Publicly Available Date Dec 11, 2020
Journal International Review of Education
Print ISSN 0020-8566
Electronic ISSN 1573-0638
Publisher Springer
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 67
Pages 273–304
Keywords Widening participation; University league tables; Higher education policy; University rankings; Performance measure
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© The Author(s) 2020. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit

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