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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.