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University league tables: are they really necessary?

 

It is a sad reality that, with potentially ever rising tuition fees, most students must now consider their degree in terms of its monetary value.

What is equally sad is that an obsession with league tables on behalf of the British media has created a climate where more status is attributed to where a university sits on a subjective ranking, than to the calibre of the professors, the content of the course or the ethos of the institution.

There are two factors to consider when debunking the league tables myth: firstly the notion that a ranking can give much indication of actual quality of education and secondly, whether the tables have any sway with employers.

From the time I applied to university until now, Sussex has gone from 79th to 140th in the Times Higher Education World Rankings (THE) and has remained between 187th and 200th in the QS world rankings.

In this time there have been almost no changes to the staff in my department (History) and the course has also barely altered at all.

How, therefore, are we supposed to trust a system where two tables in the same year can disagree on a university’s standard by nearly one hundred points?

A system where one table claims that a university can fall 61 places in just five years when no substantial changes to the teaching have taken place?

The very concept of measuring universities as overall institutions is laughable when the standard of each department, and even the suitability of that department to a particular student’s career ambitions and interests, varies so drastically.

For example, despite ranking Sussex in the high 100s overall, the QS rankings last year put the Development Studies department 1st in the world, above Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.

To further illustrate this point, Sussex is one of the only universities in the country to specialize in modern history. If you want to be a medievalist, therefore, Sussex is one of the worst places to go, yet if you want to examine working class lives during WW2, it’s one of the best.

Another factor that league tables cannot measure is Sussex’s unique ethos. Sussex is renowned for being one of the most politically engaged universities in the country, for having pioneered interdisciplinary learning and for encouraging questioning and independent thought.

When I ask most of my friends why they chose Sussex, its reputation for political activity is one of the factors nearly always mentioned.

A league table cannot capture the original ideas, the freedom to interrogate and the academic openness that such an ethos encourages.

A further point to consider is that league tables are made up of a multitude of factors, many of which (entry requirements and job prospects) are not relevant to your actual time spent at university.

One of the main factors providing a reliable indicator of your quality of education is research influence which Sussex tends to do very well in – THE ranked Sussex 4th in the UK for this category last year.

Now to quickly address the sway the tables have in the real world; the truth is, most employers do not know exactly where each university sits on each table.

The very fact that most universities jump from year to year, and often from table to table within a given year, would make it practically impossible for an employer to keep track of where every university is standing.

A student who graduated last year when Sussex was placed 111th (THE ranking) is not likely to be earning any differently than a student from the same department graduating just one year later when Sussex is apparently nearly 30 places below.

More importantly, those two students were almost certainly taught the same modules by the same academics and, therefore, in all meaningful senses, received the same education.

Therefore, I object to the very notion that a league table could be indicative of the value of my degree.

I, personally, am enjoying my course, am being taught by world experts in my field and am being greatly helped by professors taking time out of their schedules to aid my application for the masters courses of my dreams. QS can’t measure that!

 

Tania Shew

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One Comment

  1. A few things to consider when looking at league tables is that they rank institutions on a range of different factors such as student satisfaction, employment rate, the quality of said employment or the quality of research that the University produces. This is why two different league tables may rank the same university differently; they are measuring different things.

    Often league tables will combine different statistics to try and give a better “overall” view of the institution.

    As for the value of the league tables, it depends on what value you put in the outcome of your degree. I think the choice is clear between one university that has an employment rate of 80% and another who has a rate of 65% (made up stats, i know).

    Different league tables measure different things, also keep in mind these are actual measurements not the opinions of the Times Education staff or who ever has produced the league table

    Reply

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