University league tables are not perfect guides for students

The 2018 league tables are out and Edinburgh ranks 30th in the UK (The Guardian) and 29th in the world (The Times Higher Education). Confused? Me too.

The tables vary each year, with surprising additions to the top ten one year and others dropping down to the top fifty another. Look online and you will find most newspapers run separate studies and different comparison sites also have their own versions. Then there are tables for subjects, departments, extracurriculars – the list goes on. Where is a prospective student suppose to start?

We insist on relentlessly comparing universities with ever more varied data until a finite result of the best and worst is obtained. There is no definition of a brilliant university; they’re all different. Imagine ranking world cities using a variety of data and concluding what the best and worst overall cities were. That would make no sense, and neither do university league tables.

Universities around the country have different qualities, specialities, and reputations. They cater to a wide array of students and that is something we should be happy about. We do not judge hospitals on how many patients die under their care, after all, the hospital with the most deaths may be taking on more challenging patients. Similarly, we should not compare universities on their results or alumni careers. Despite the continual flux of university league tables, higher education in the UK has international acclaim and is something we should be proud of.

Then again, of course it is helpful to look at the differences between universities. We should not deny prospective students the opportunity to ascertain that one university will have more contact hours, higher quality research or better mental health provisions than another. What we should not be doing though, is calculating this data to find an ambiguous ranking to fit all students.

If there is one group of people who should pay close attention to the tables, though, it is the university faculty with the power to improve low scoring areas. Our Vice-Chancellor, Peter Mathieson, should look into low student satisfaction and how this is linked to high rates of depression, poor mental health services, and minimal contact hours.

Unfortunately, the nature of the league tables means that Mathieson is unlikely to change how the university operates. He can ignore Edinburgh’s relatively low ranking in the UK table, safe in the knowledge that students will still apply here. Edinburgh scores high internationally and employers are motivated by our old and global reputation, not rates of student satisfaction.

Hence Edinburgh has been able to rest on its laurels and ignore its persistently low ranking on the UK table. Mathieson will not feel the mounting pressure from our low ranking and will probably not improve the problems that these studies outline. Ultimately, we all accessed the league tables before applying to Edinburgh, and yet we all still chose to come.

Future students can look at the league tables, but don’t try to make sense of them. If you see something that is a personal red flag, like student support or research quality, then consider applying elsewhere. But do not expect the league tables to accurately reflect your experience once you arrive.

Everyone is different and so are universities. Squeezing them into a neat table for comparison helps no one, except, perhaps, the staff in charge, who should always be trying to improve their students’ experience.


Image: Elizabeth Greenberg 

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The Student Newspaper 2016