Hannah Theodorou is the Deputy President (Education & Welfare) for Imperial College Union. She is one of four Sabbatical Officers who are elected each year from the student body. On a break in studies from her course in Medicine, Hannah is responsible for the representation network that puts across students' views on everything from the quality of food in catering, the pastoral care in halls and the quality of teaching in departments.
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Why do you think there?s a difference between the two league tables, and which one should we actually be believing?
There?s a clear reason why there?s big differences between the tables. The Guardian focuses on things like percentage satisfied with teaching and feedback whereas The Times is focusing heavily on things like research quality and our entry requirements and we fair a lot better in The Times because of things like our excellent research score, our high entry standards and the amount of money we spend on our students. Whereas in the Guardian we perform particularly badly because of our low feedback rating, particularly, and our relatively low percentage satisfied with teaching.
How important do you think the league tables are? Are students using them when they?re thinking about where to apply to university?
When they get published they?re featured quite heavily in the media. Everyone knows that Imperial was ranked fifth in the Times Higher Education university guides a few years ago, it was flashed all over our website, and it?s hard not to pay attention to that. I very much doubt that students sit there and say, ?right, well that one is ranked first in that league table and third in that one and overall I balance that as being the second best,? but they can look at specific scoring criteria in each league table ranking and pick out things that are really important to them, and I think that students will look at the Guardian and if we?ve only got a 50% satisfaction rate for feedback scores, that?s going to mean a lot to some students.
Do you think that employers are using them as well?
I think, subconsciously, employers will prefer higher ranked universities, but I think that through experience ? through employment of our graduates ? they?ll have a feeling of what we?re particularly strong at and what they really like about an Imperial education, so I don?t think that they are as important to employers as they are to students.
When we spoke to Julia she said that Imperial should be striving to be the first university in those league tables. What do you think, in your opinion, is holding us back?
Well, it depends which one we want to be first in! If we want to be first in the Guardian we absolutely need to carry on addressing this issue of feedback for students and an 81% satisfaction rate can be seen as very good or very bad, it depends who you speak to. But then, if we want to become top in the first [The Times] then the thing that is pulling us down, again, is overall student satisfaction. So, I think it?s important that we are striving to reach the top of these league tables for our own satisfaction. We should be scoring very highly in all of these areas, if we want to give the best university experience to our students. Striving to just arbitrarily say that we are the top of this league table is just meaningless to me.
You said that we have an 81% satisfaction with teaching in the Guardian. Despite that, we are still ranked second-to-bottom of the Russell Group. It?s the same for feedback, second-to-bottom again. Do you think this is an issue that students feel really strongly about?
Well, it?s an integral part of their university experience. Ultimately, we want a well-rounded experience when we come to university, we want to take up every opportunity that?s available to us, but we ultimately came here for an education and a low satisfaction rate for teaching is something that has to be totally a priority for improving our scoring in these league tables because that is what students are here for. And feedback has been undervalued over recent years, until it became the focus of so many questions on the National Students Survey, and we keep scoring badly along with a lot of the other Russell Group institutions but feedback is an integral part of a student?s learning. If they don?t get feedback on where their particular strengths and weaknesses lie then they can?t move forward and build on the knowledge that they have gained. There?s no point in doing coursework otherwise.
Paddy seemed to think that we didn?t fare so well on the NSS because our students are a lot more critical, because that?s how they?re trained to be. Would you agree with that?
I think that?s a great perspective. I think that Paddy has got a great understanding of a lot of aspects of university experiences and I do think that our students are a lot more critical, and I like them for that, but they?ve got to pick their battles. What?s most important to them? Do they want free Gym and Swim, do they want great meals on campus or do they want a really top quality education? And they?ve got to fight for the ones that are really important to themselves.
The Times chooses to rank universities on the number of good honours that they offer. In the top 25, only Loughborough and Aston actually offer less than us. Why do you think that is?
Imperial prides itself in not diluting the quality of their standards. The QAA did pick up on the fact that there are differences between the different departments and that we seem to have a lower rate than a lot of other institutions teaching similar subjects. But the academics feel that a student getting a 2:1 now is exactly the same standard as a student who got a 2:1 in the seventies. So, it?s all relative to our students? achievement and if we start giving out 2:1s and firsts for the sake of bringing ourselves up in league tables then all that will do is devalue the quality of our degree. But there are specific departments, and I?m going to be controversial here, who are consistently giving out lower rates of 2:1s and firsts. The college does have a 70% target for 2:1s and firsts and there are some that are consistently below that and that either means that we are taking in poorer-quality students than in all of the other departments or the teaching in that department isn?t bringing them up to scratch.
Are you able to tell us which departments you reckon that is?
You can look in our statistics guide on the internet.
OK, we will. In that case, if we have kept our degree levels at the same standard since the 1970s, is it that we are seeing degree-inflation at other universities, or are they just simply getting better at teaching?
I think I?m unqualified to say. I think academics do feel that it has become easier to get a 2:1 or first at other institutions, but I don?t have the evidence to show that any degrees are getting easier anywhere else. But we are not that much below Oxford and Cambridge. Our average is about 70% and Oxford and Cambridge is 85%. So we are marginally below, but Oxford and Cambridge are taking in better students than we are.
Even with Imperial offering three As for most subjects?
Yes. They?ve got a far more rigorous selection process where you?ve got at least two interviews and extra entrance examinations, which we are looking into but we don?t select the same students that Oxford and Cambridge do.
And finally, do you think that league tables are something which you value as a Student Union?
I value them for a specific reason, which is they (the university) prides themselves on being high up in the league tables and if we can pick out specific areas which we know are really important to students, such as career prospects, such as feedback and teaching satisfaction, then those are the ways to kind of pick our battles with the university, in a kind of controversial sense. But it?s a way of highlighting what we really think needs to be improved to make sure that the student experience here is as good as possible.
See the previous interviews in this series, where Live! spoke to Head of Commercial Services, Paddy Jackman about the student experience, and Pro Rector (Education), Julia Buckingham about academic quality at Imperial.