University rankings are indecipherable and misleading

The arbitrary nature of University league tables emphasises how it is reputation, rather than ranking, that holds weight in the real world of employment

University rankings are for many the first port of call. It seems that this is a message one has heard since childhood, “go to a good university, get a good job.” Sound familiar? Just one problem, what is a good university?

The likes of Oxford and Cambridge inevitably spring to mind. They are after all the oldest, and it is fair to say that the tutorial system offered by either is superior to anything offered anywhere else in terms of the attention given to each student in an academic environment. As such, few would argue that in Britain at least getting accepted into these institutions is the pinnacle of high school achievement, and a good degree from them opens doors closed to people from other establishments.

This pair aside, the unofficial pecking order that is a university’s reputation is highly debatable. Durham, considered by many to be ‘the best of the rest’ found itself in 17th place in last year’s Guardian rankings. The likes of Bristol and Edinburgh both find themselves comfortably outside the top ten while the Times put Bristol 23 places higher in last year’s rankings than did the Guardian. If two statistically based surveys by reputable organisations can differ so drastically in their conclusions, it says something about how difficult it is to come to any definitive judgement on ‘which is best.’ Even the Russell Group fails to provide any sort of meaningful guidance with many of its members being ranked far below universities outside the group.

Even if a definitive ranking system were to be found, how often do we actually consider what admission to top universities really means? It shows a person is outstanding academically, it shows they are highly intelligent, but it also shows something else equally important; they are very, very lucky. Given the number of people that get top grades, the basis for selection is marginal. Though there are of course interviews, personal statements and even exams to be taken into consideration, with so many excellent candidates there is still very little to choose between them (at least for anyone short of Sheldon Cooper levels of genius) and so it is near impossible for any university to definitively know that one person is more academically able than another.

Did the fact that York won the University of the Year Award last year mean it was the best place in the UK to go to university? No. Does the fact that it has fallen six places in the Guardian’s rankings mean that the quality of education is significantly worse this year than last year? No.

Just as university rankings count for far more than they should, so does a university’s reputation. Despite having considerable weight in the real world of employment, the reality is that university reputations are alarmingly arbitrary, and to have your job prospects affected by the reputation of your university is as unfair as it can be misleading.

5 comments

  1. 24 May ’11 at 1:42 pm

    holger czukay

    This article has been written about a thousand times. Well done.

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  2. I find the Guardian’s tables are particularly terrible. The Guardian university and subject rankings fluctuate far too wildly on a yearly basis to offer any strong insight on how “reputable” universities are. Of course, universities like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE always rank at the top but that’s obvious without the tables. Meanwhile, the fact that a university can jump from around the 20s or so into the top ten in any of the tables shows how university administrators can play the league table game adequately enough such that they can effectively fiddle with the numbers and come out on top.

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  3. Yet few complained when we were in the top ten…
    Still point and case, including something as abstract as ‘student satisfaction’ as a factor is ludicrous.

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  4. 31 May ’11 at 7:44 pm

    Nicholas Dunn-McAfee

    holger czukay – I think you’ll find this article has not been written a thousand times.

    And if, in your possible world theory, it has, why aren’t you willing to see that this article is both erudite, seamless and most importantly honest.

    Grow up and take notice of a good writer when you see one.

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  5. Holger has a point, I’ve read this article elsewhere a thousand times over the years.

    That aside, there needs to be some sort of standardized university inspection system like with schools, for there to be reliable league table. CUrrently the disgruntled students having a gripe on the NUS survey, which many others don’t bother to fill in, have influence on the rankings, which is quite wrong.

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