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Why university league tables aren't worth your time


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Students at Cambridge University: rejoice. The Guardian University league table has placed Cambridge top out of 121 institutions across the country, with a score of 100 out of 100.

Presumably, undergraduates at the university’s 31 colleges are all sipping champagne. 

Overflowing Champagne

Conversely, Buckinghamshire New University students must be drowning their sorrows in distress at ranking bottom of the same league table.

With a Guardian score of only 32.6, the university finds itself 10.9 points below the second lowest institution.

Definitely not the one for those applying in September.

Or, maybe it is.

Consider, for example, Liverpool John Moores. In 2018, the 22,000-strong institution ranked 80th out of 120.

Looked at coldly, placing in the bottom half of a league table wouldn’t fill many potential students with confidence.

However, fast forward 12 months and the same university is sitting at 49th.

For those at SOAS, the league table fluctuation must be even more galling with the 2018 25th-placing university dropping significantly for the 2019 intake to 58th.

Here it is clear that institutions shoot up and down more often than tower rides at a theme park.

As a sixth form student, knowing your hard-won and much-agonised over place at a ‘good’ university could be completely lost by the time you attend your first lecture must be incredibly off-putting. 

But there’s more.

For instance, there’s the way in which the scores are calculated.

The Guardian provides a very thorough explanation of their methodology, which uses data they’ve obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, such as staff-to-student ratios, spend per student and employability statistics.

However, several pieces of feedback come from the National Student Survey (NSS), which all final year students are invited to complete.

Indeed, in some cases, students are actively encouraged to do so by universities, with competitions set up in order to persuade more final-years to participate.

However, sometimes this encouragement can go too.

Speaking from personal experience, I vividly remember being spoken to about the survey in my final year.

Along with stressing the importance of providing the feedback to help the university improve, there was also a claim that where our university ranked would have an impact upon how highly our degrees were regarded, and therefore how employable or otherwise we would seem.

The message was clear: score us highly or suffer the consequences. 

This in itself makes me question the validity of such results.

Whilst some students might be answering the survey with this in mind, others may be using it to grind their own particular axe.

For some courses and universities with small intakes, a select group of students answering negatively could have a massive impact upon their final ranking.

University also represents many things to many different people.

For some, it’s all about the academia while for others, the social side is more important.

For another group entirely, it might be about the leadership opportunities or chance to represent their institution on the sports field.

Even within these camps, there are different opinions as to what constitutes feeling ‘satisfied’.

My needs are very different to yours, and what suited me probably won’t suit you. How on earth can scores be considered equally as valid and insightful?

Furthermore, you only have to have a little play around on The Guardian site to see how variable these results can be.

Taking my institution and subject area Brunel is ordinarily ranked 58th, but by filtering the results to English degrees it leaps into the top ten.

Conversely, take a look at the results for sport science, and we’re back down to 51st.

Hidden within an average-ranking university might be a gem of a department. Criminology at Gloucestershire, for example, ranks 6th for subject, whilst the university itself is a likely-disappointing 55th.

Once you throw in the fact that universities such as Cambridge and Oxford are formed of several colleges, which have to be applied to individually via UCAS, and you’ve got yourself a whole heap of confusion and contradictions.

I understand that people want an easy way of sorting out which institution is right for them.

We all know that open days are models of PR and very little else and that nobody could ever visit every university in the country in order to make their choice.

Even if you could, good luck remembering what the one you visited on September 1st was like in comparison with July 31st.

League tables give clear, tangible scores and provide a simple ranking tool.

What I’m urging is the need to take all of this with an entire block of salt.

My own experiences as a secondary educator reveal the falsities within league tables, as I can easily send my own workplace up or down the scale depending on which aspects I choose to consider on this occasion.

Use the league table, by all means, but try to look beyond the raw scores.

Consider your specific subject and ask difficult questions of the university if needs be.

Just don’t get too hung up on all of this. A few resignations here, a few recruitments there, and everything about the university can change in a matter of months.

Pick the university that best fits you, in terms of location, atmosphere and course.

All the rest will fall into place, I promise.

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