Thinking about going to university and have no idea what uni to pick? Fair enough, there are many people that don’t have the first idea either, and tend to choose the ones that look the prettiest or the ones that their parents have heard of. Bad move – universities are like fruit. Or books. Or, well, most things – there’s a lot more to them than what you can see on the outside. It’s an awful analogy, but you will see what we mean.
One way to break through the minefield is the university ranking tables published in newspapers like The Times or The Guardian. Comparing numbers may seem a slightly clinical method of choosing your university, but it pays to know some of the facts hidden behind the shiny exteriors. So, without any ado (and hopefully with no more bad analogies involving fruit), here’s a guide to the ranking system and how it’s all worked out.
University rankings are a very convenient way of pitting two or more universities against each other with pure empirical data
The Ranking Process
Universities are ranked slightly differently depending on what system is used, but generally the same categories are measured. We’ll go over all of them in some detail, but first, here they all are. In no particular order:
- Student Satisfaction
- Staff/Student Ratio
- Expenditure Per Student
- Entry Requirements
- Research Quality
- Students’ Career Prospects
- Number of International Students
So, a fair few things are measured. But how useful are they all, exactly? For example, a certain university might have an enormous amount of foreign undergraduates, but this doesn’t necessarily make it a good university, last year the Telegraph reported that many universities offer foreign students lower entry requirements than their UK counterparts. Obviously, therefore, these rankings have to be taken with a pinch of salt. We’ll talk more about that later.
So, lets talk about each of the categories in a little more detail…
Make this one of the first rankings you look for if you are concerned with your learning experience at university, as scores are derived from a measure of students’ satisfaction at the level of teaching they receive. Treat it similarly to an online review on your favourite web-based retailer, there may be a few negative reviews but if the overwhelming majority are happy with the service they receive, then the university will rank well here.
Generally, the more staff there are for a given number of students, the better equipped the university is to provide a student value for their money. Basic stuff. Again, though, this ranking isn’t fool-proof: it might be a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but what if one university had a particularly huge quota of cleaning staff for some reason? Perhaps the students keep dropping fruit everywhere, or something (sorry). Or maybe there was a particularly low intake of students which skewed the rankings in the universities favour.
Ultimately though, this ranking is a good indicator of the level of access to staff you can expect, though it is not a guarantee of the standard of teaching you will receive.
Expenditure Per Student
See above, but better. The theory behind this ranking is that a greater spend per student indicates the presence of greater learning resources. Bear in mind that financial investment at universities can be spent on a variety of things that might not necessarily directly improve your learning experience. Some rankings take this into consideration by splitting expenditure rankings into academic (think library resources, computers) and facilities (sports, careers, student union etc.) categories. Nevertheless, this is one of the best and most clean-cut ways of comparing how universities are going to look after you.
The entry requirement rankings operate under the premise that a better performing university accepts applicants with higher grades than the applicants of a university that is not performing so well.
These rankings are not in themselves a perfect way of measuring how successful a university is – a better method would probably be to take into account the grades that students achieve upon leaving university, which would mean slightly encroaching on graduate career prospects, more of that later. The entry requirements may change year on year for many courses and subjects, so the maths behind this ranking can be very complex.
Generally you’d assume that a university demanding better grades would be likely to provide a higher standard of teaching, and there’s not much arguing with that. You might suppose that a poor performing university might suddenly raise its entry requirements to raise its rankings in an attempt to attract students with higher grades, but weightings do exist to attempt to avoid this scenario.
Research quality should in general be seen as a good indicator of the proficiency of a university. The higher the quality of research produced, the better support available for your work, which should in turn help take your work onto higher levels of quality.
Do be wary that, although you would expect any university to produce high quality research, there may be a chance that a greater percentage of resources are diverted to research and students are neglected as a result. Besides, “research quality” can become a little ambiguous once you get past the tiny fraction of breakthroughs that make it to the public eye. And occasionally the ones that do get through to the news aren’t exactly the most inspiring – one of the BBC’s top stories in 2007 was the scientific perfection of the bacon sandwich. Whilst we think this is an immensely worthwhile cause, it’s not exactly an enormous breakthrough as far as science is concerned.
Students’ Career Prospects
Now we believe that this is an excellent measurement and probably explains why final grades aren’t measured alongside entry requirements. This ranking will generally look at the number of students that go on to full-time employment or full time education when they graduate. A number of factors can influence this ranking – such as the type of job that recent graduates go into. Higher level jobs are favoured over lower level jobs, and rates of pay are usually taken into account.
You can’t go too wrong with this one; after all one of the main reasons a lot of us go to university for is to, hopefully, find a good job when we graduate. Admittedly, there can be some bias when it comes to identifying what a ‘good job’ is composed of – job satisfaction can be far more important than a pay cheque to a lot of people. If you find it reassuring to know how likely you are to find employment when you graduate, this is the ranking to look for.
Number of International Students
On the surface this ranking may not seem like an obvious indicator of a university’s quality, but the same principles as the entry requirement rankings hold true – if the university has a strong reputation, more students from around the world will want to attend. Although this ranking isn’t a foolproof indicator of quality, you may assume that higher international student percentages point to forward thinking on the university’s behalf and may also point to the university possessing strong international links, which could lead to exciting study abroad possibilities.
The Pinch Of Salt
University rankings are a very convenient way of pitting two or more universities against each other with pure empirical data, but the differences between ranking systems and the narrow scope of some rankings make it necessary to keep a pinch of salt at hand.
Rankings tend to make good headlines for universities, but for the perfectionists amongst you they can mean potentially ruling out perfectly viable options.
We suggest digging a little deeper when you are choosing your university. When looking at rankings, try to find the subject-specific ranking table of the course you’re interested in, you might find some universities perform particularly well in certain subject areas and may offer strong paths to industry in certain sectors.
Don’t discount other methods of assessing your choices such as attending open days, contacting university alumni and plain-old finding the right course for you. At Coursefindr, we’ve got you covered when it comes to searching your options.