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League tables are inappropriate for the complexity of choosing a university

ByMolly Workman

Mar 17, 2018

Each year millions of university hopefuls are plagued with the same question: which university will be the best fit for their character, calibre, and aspirations? The majority will scour the web for those all-important, omniscient university league tables, yet this chosen medium of adjudication is both problematic and reductive on a number of levels, leading to competing tables providing a confusing array of perspectives and engaging in the corruptive commodification of education.

The objective of a league table, such as that used for the Premier League, is uncomplicated: it ranks in tabular form the teams which have performed best for the season and those that risk relegation. To lead the table, a team must merely obtain the most points (achieving 3 points for a win, 1 for a draw), and herein its single-criterion simplicity lies its success in competently conveying a rank order.

A university rank order, on the other hand, cannot be assembled using a single criterion. Universities cannot be judged solely on their student satisfaction, or graduate prospects, or professor-to-student ratio, but must receive an overall score based on an amalgamation of their marks in these distinct categories. A multitude of criteria, however, is problematic, as different league table compilers will have different notions of what makes a university great. Some assessors of university performance might value quality of teaching over quality of research, whilst others may emphasise international prestige over national standing, leading to a plethora of varying league tables – such as the Complete University Guide or the Times Higher Education or the Guardian – each championing different universities. Granted, it may be indisputable that Oxbridge tops the charts for the UK. After that, however, it becomes a little trickier. Take our very own Edinburgh University, for example: the Times Higher Education 2018 World University Rankings table places Edinburgh as 27th in the world, thereby awarding it an impressive 6th out of all UK universities. Yet if one were to consult the Complete University Guide’s rank order for the exact same year, they would be surprised to find Edinburgh at #23 in just the UK, suggesting a chronic mismatch of either information or criteria deliberation.

The capriciousness of university ranking is equally bewildering. The Guardian’s 2018 statistics conclude that in just one year, Nottingham Trent has jumped an astounding 19 places whilst Southampton has dropped the equivalent. These leaps are not anomalous figures by any means. The notion that a university’s quality can be so elevated or so reduced in just the space of 12 months, without this being an isolated occurrence, is baffling and unrealistic. Moreover, the criteria itself is illusive in its compilation. How can something as complex and personal as teaching quality be judged? The vast discrepancies between university rankings exemplify the inherent subjectivity and misleading nature of league tables’ information selection.

After contemplating the questionable construction of university league tables, the pervasive influence they have on prospective students becomes worrying. If the assessment of university quality is obscured by subjectivity, then the acceptance or rejection of a university place based solely or largely upon their position in the league tables could impede students in finding the institution that suits them best. Who is to say that Leeds University is superior to Bristol?  The Complete University Guide, apparently. Times Higher Education, contrastingly, places Leeds a significant nine places behind Bristol. Which verdict can be trusted?

Education is a service that should not be commodified. It is so much more than a mere good to be consumed by its clientele. What makes each university unique is its individual colourful history or multitude of charming idiosyncrasies. To pit institution against institution, in stark rank order and with rudimentary, reductive, homogenising criteria, is to detract from the individuality and sui generis nature of the institution itself.

Image: Qimono via Pixabay

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