The reality of university rankings

World university league tables tell us practically nothing about the institutions they rank.

Cambridge is the best university in the world, but Oxford is the best university in the UK. Bear in mind, however, that University College London is better than Oxford. Confused? Welcome to the world of university rankings.

The past fortnight has seen the publication of two worldwide university rankings that offer conflicting analyses of the state of higher education in the UK.

The first, published last week and compiled by QS, painted a rosy picture of British universities. Four of the top ten were British (with UCL above Oxford) and 19 of the world's top 100 universities were from the UK. To top it all off, Cambridge knocked Harvard off the top spot.

One week later, and British universities were no longer feeling so smug. In the THES rankings, just five universities made the top 50 and only 14 were in the top 100. To compound the misery, Harvard was once more ensconced at number one.

To confuse matters further, both these rankings conflicted with the national university rankings. The Times and Guardian university rankings agree that Oxford is the best in the UK, even though it ranks behind Cambridge in both world rankings and behind UCL in QS's.

According to the Times, Durham is one place better than UCL. But according to the THES rankings, UCL is better than Durham -- by 88 places.

The reason behind these skewed results is simple: all the rankings use vastly different criteria. QS uses a survey of academics, the number of citations, graduate employment rates, student-faculty ratios and the number of international students to build its rankings.

Such an approach has been heavily criticised, not least by our own David Blanchflower:

Almost a third of the score is based on the student-to-faculty ratio and the proportion of both international faculty and overseas students, which is laughable as they tell us zero about quality. Other questionable measures that are used underweight the importance of current scholarship. This is an index that penalises the best to help the mediocre. We should judge our universities on the quality and quantity of the research that they produce. Period.

He's scathing about the results of the survey, too:

The UK is not home to four of the top ten universities in the world, sorry.

Blanchflower favours the THES's new approach, which relies heavily on citations. While citations are certainly indicative of research quality, research quality does not necessarily indicate a good university -- at least not from the student's view.

Having a world-class professor in your department does not necessarily equate to a world-class education. Being able to write a good book is no indication of whether or not a professor can give an excellent lecture or competently run a seminar.

It's for this reason that the Times''s ranking takes the National Student Survey (NSS) into account. The NSS asks students how satisfied they are with their education. If a student is satisfied, the thinking goes, then they must have received a good education. Thus the university is deserving of a higher ranking.

But students at different universities have vastly different expectations. Those near the bottom of the satisfaction league -- such as the London School of Economics and Manchester -- are often at the top of overall rankings. Plus, students know that by criticising their university in the NSS, they are affecting its ranking and thus the reputation of their own degree. Professors have been known to pressurise students into giving good feedback for this very reason.

So, which ranking is best? Well, none of them. Each of them gives a broad idea of a university's strengths or weaknesses, but should be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. Publishing "woe is me" articles because only eight universities made it into the top 50 is merely a way of ignoring the broader issues for higher education in Britain today.

If people stopped talking about rankings and concentrated instead on coming up with a viable funding model, our universities would improve massively -- and the rankings would take care of themselves.

Duncan Robinson also blogs here.

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.