By Ben Sladden
Durham University has strengthened its reputation abroad and at home this year after being ranked 29th in the world in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2018 for the Arts & Humanities.
Success for the University’s Humanities Departments was also matched University-wide as Durham was ranked fifth in the UK by The Times & Sunday Times Good University Guide.
Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor at Durham University, said: “To be ranked in the top five universities in the UK reflects the sustained commitment we have to delivering excellence across education, research and the wider student experience.
“As part of our new strategy we have ambitious plans to develop and place the University firmly among the best in world.
“Recent milestones include opening the International Study Centre in Stockton welcoming the first cohort of students, and in Durham City work will shortly commence on the new £40m Centre for Teaching and Learning which will be a hub for educational innovation.”
Most prospective students will refer to university league tables to help inform their choices regarding higher education. However, this can be a perplexing task with numerous different rankings existing, often presenting disparate results.
In September, Durham University was placed 29th in the world in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2018 for the Arts & Humanities. The THE rankings are among the main global ‘hard’ rankings, disregarding factors such as student satisfaction (which the domestic rankings factor in), focusing solely on academic reputation, quality of research and the internationalism of departments.
Professor David Cowling, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Durham (Arts and Humanities) said: “These latest world rankings demonstrate the continued international excellence of Arts and Humanities teaching and research at Durham University.
“We have strength in every subject area and particularly value research-led education, allowing our students to develop skills which equip them well for future studies or the world of work.”
Durham’s Humanities Departments are involved in ongoing cutting-edge research projects across the world. Archaeologists from Durham became the first UK university team to work on sites within the Forbidden City in Beijing where access is restricted. Furthermore, The Zurbarán Centre for Spanish and Latin American Art is scheduled to open in Bishop Auckland alongside a gallery exhibiting Spanish art.
Despite recent success, there appears a clear mismatch between Durham’s reputation in Britain compared to its standing across the globe. QS 2018 placed the University joint 78th in the UK, and 12th in the UK. Similarly, the THE only narrowly placed Durham within the top 100 universities in the world this year, and ranked the University outside of the top ten in the UK.
The discrepancy in international and domestic league table results has in large part to do with the disparate methodology of the rankings. The international rankings emphasise universities’ reputation amongst other academics, citations per paper and papers per faculty alongside other metrics.
This serves to benefit the larger, research-intensive institutions, like Oxbridge and London—known in academic circles as the “Golden Triangle”. Domestic rankings, however, take into account student experience, and other factors not directly relating to departmental academic prestige.
Durham is among the smallest Russell Group universities with just under 18,000 students as of 2015/16, though this is set to rise in the coming years. Moreover, it has the smallest number of academic staff of the Russell Group—around a quarter of the academic staff of Oxford and UCL.
Nevertheless, the University administration is clearly taking significant steps to improve its global prestige.
Earlier this year, the University embarked on an ambitious £700m ten-year investment strategy, which will include the relocation of students from Queens’ Campus in Stockton, increasing student numbers; Durham City has seen significant infrastructural investment; and the University aims to establish “four to six new Colleges through the life of the new University Strategy”.
In a statement to Palatinate, Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor, Durham University, stated: “Our University Strategy aims to strengthen Durham’s position as a globally networked university, recognised around the world as an outstanding place to study and work and a significant contributor to international research and innovation agendas.
“This year, many British universities ranked lower in international league tables than they did in previous years’ results; in the QS tables, Durham was placed joint-78th this year compared to 61th in 2016. Some have argued the trend across Britain was a result of the Brexit referendum which has created uncertainties about the continuity of cross-border academic networks which exist within the EU.”
In response to queries about the specific effect of Brexit on Durham’s international standing, Professor Corbridge told this Palatinate: “We are immensely proud of the contributions of all of our staff members and students. We will continue to lobby through Universities UK and the Russell Group for the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK after the UK leaves the European Union, and for continuing access to EU research funding.
“We will also continue to make the case for immigration and work regimes which properly value and facilitate the contributions of international staff and students.”
This year has marked the infancy of some new university rankings. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)—ostensibly a means of rating quality of teaching—was introduced earlier this year, awarding universities Olympic-style rankings of Gold, Silver and Bronze.
Durham was ranked Silver, leading to an unsuccessful appeal by the University in which it sought the coveted Gold ranking. Some commentators and university administrators have, however criticised the virtue of the TEF as a true reflection of teaching quality.
But for many students the prime motivation for attending university is to increase employability.
The Economist this year released a new study of graduate salaries, comparing the gap between the expected earnings of graduates had they not attended university and their actual earnings after five years. By the magazine’s analysis, Durham ranked just 109th out of the 125 UK universities surveyed.
However, when factoring out “expected salaries” as a unit of analysis, Durham ranked 12th in the country in terms of actual earnings. Similarly, Oxford rose from 10th to 2nd place when focusing on actual earnings alone.
Meanwhile, in the QS Graduate Employability Rankings, Durham was placed in the top 50 universities for “employer reputation”.
Professor Corbridge said of these rankings:“What is clear is that the University is realising that, if it wants to maintain its position amongst the top flight, prestige at home has to be mirrored abroad.
“The University’s Ten-year Strategy, with its focus on boosting the internationalism of the University … is a clear step toward this goal.”
Photograph: Amy Ding