Rankings show patterns, not attainment

The senior team within our establishment cannot have it both ways

For the first time in a few years the latest university rankings make smug reading for York students. As most UK institutions suffer a disappointing fall – into what Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, calls “global mediocrity” – York has risen 18 places to 103rd in the world.

At first glance this appears to be a great triumph for York against its UK peers. However, some context is needed when talking about university rankings. Though a rise of 18 places is significant, it isn’t as significant as the drop of 40 places – out of the top 100 – that occurred last year.

The University at the time dismissed this as the result of, “fluctuation [that] does occur periodically in league tables”. But the senior team within our establishment cannot have it both ways. In prime location on the homepage of the University website is a purple box brandishing the achievement of York as the number one university under 50 years old in the world. A notable accolade no doubt, but you shouldn’t praise and heavily publicise your successes without accepting failures or disappointments when they happen.

Everyone knows there are a hundred and one ranking guides with as many different methodologies as there are universities. No rankings are directly comparable – there are at least three universities who can lay claim to the World Number One crown this year – but simply dismissing outright falls in tables, as happened last year, undermines the claim of improvement that this year’s rise suggests.

Perhaps what we should be concentrating on is the rise of Asian universities into the world top 100. In future years this could impact on UK institutions as international students provide a sizeable portion of a university’s student revenue. If Asian students decide to attend Asian universities, finances may suffer in the UK. There are around 50 more international students this year at York than previous years, but this isn’t something the University can rely on, especially with unfriendly student immigration policies.

What this shows is that rankings can show patterns and trends – like the rise of Asian universities – but specific year on year rises and falls should be only loosely recognised.

Rather than highlighting the good but ignoring the bad, the University should take all rankings with a pinch of salt. Students and staff members know that York is a good university, one of the best in the world. We also know that last year wasn’t ten times better than the year before or that this year won’t be ten times worse than last. The University is right: rankings do fluctuate sporadically. These fluctuations can enable York to rise 20 places or fall 20 places but it is futile to embrace positive fluctuation yet dismiss it when it’s negative.

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