Should we listen to university league tables?

By World Rankings

It’s that time again. Just weeks after the arrival of a new batch of freshers, staff across the University will be primed and ready, eagerly waiting for applications from sixth form students hoping to study at Durham University in 2015.

Up and down the country bright-eyed sixth form students will be making their minds up. With the deadline for UCAS applications set for mid-January, they have just over two months to answer some very difficult questions indeed. Can they make the grade at an Oxbridge university? Should they seek the bright lights of London? Or should they burst their way into the Durham bubble?

Many months of fact finding and souls searching will go in to their final decisions. Considerations like location, job prospects and nightlife will all be weighed up and calculated, before the long list of potential universities is narrowed down to just five.

Choosing which university to commit to involves considering an almost infinite number of factors, but university tables make the job easier.

In 2013, a study by economists at Royal Holloway, University of London, revealed that, in the light of the recent rise in tuition fees, modern students take far more care when choosing where to study, and will therefore consult the university league tables extensively before making a final decision.

“Choosing which university to commit to involves considering an almost infinite number of factors, but university tables make the job easier.”

The study also revealed that departments experience a 5% rise in applications when they move up a place on subject-level league tables.

Two of the most prominent ranking systems are the Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) , which compare universities on a global scale.

On the basis of these, the Oxbridge universities seem to be the place to be: both Oxford and Cambridge sit in the top five of the QS and THE tables.

From a Durham perspective, the recent publication of the ensures that administrative staff are likely to have a busy time filing through applications.

Once again, the THE and QS world put Durham in their top 100, reinforcing it’s status as one of the most attractive universities in the UK. Furthermore, the University was recognized for the quality of its research, performing the best of any world university in the THE’s research influence category.

In response to these successes, the Acting Vice Chancellor, Professor Ray Hudson, praised the University’s staff and researchers.

“We are pleased to have further consolidated our World Top 100 position in THE , following on from our recent success in the QS World University , which is testament to Durham’s excellence in academic research and teaching, and the hard work of our staff”.

The Acting Vice Chancellor also alluded to the fact that Durham has four departments in the top 50 in the QS , which he labels a ‘tremendous achievement’. The University’s History, Physics and Law departments all finished in the top 50, whilst the Geography department was declared the fourth best in the world.

“We are pleased to have further consolidated our world top 100 position in the .”

Despite these successes, the don’t paint a very clear picture. Although the University has held on to its status as one of the top 100 universities in the world, its global ranking is seemingly at odds with its national ranking.

Earlier this year, The Complete University Guide claimed for the second year in succession that Durham is the fifth best university in the country, just below the likes of Cambridge, Oxford, the London School of Economics (LSE) and Imperial College London.

By contrast, the QS and THE place Durham at 92nd and 83rd respectively. Needless to say, such a drop is inevitable given that the world consider far more universities than the national league tables.

However, the fact that the QS places no less than fourteen UK universities above Durham is startling, as it means that nine rival universities ranked above Durham in the world , despite being lower down in the national .

Similarly, the THE places nine UK universities above Durham. So, why are there such discrepancies between the national and global , and which should prospective students trust?

Andrew Robertson, the MCR President at Hatfield College, believes that the differing methodologies used by the national and global could be the cause of such wildly variable results.

“My, perhaps somewhat uniformed impression, was always that the world focused on research, whilst the national were more likely to consider things like entrance requirements and student satisfaction”.

Phil Baty, the editor of the THE, concurred with Andrew’s “somewhat uniformed” impression, and confirmed that the THE consider research to be more important that student satisfaction and entrance requirements, on the grounds that research could be compared globally in a way that student satisfaction and entrance requirements can’t.

“The fact that the QS place no less than fourteen UK universities above Durham is startling.”

“In terms of student satisfaction, if you accept the premise that satisfying students is what universities should be doing, and there are strong cases against this, there is a problem with collecting credible data at a global level.

“There are several national systems in place, such as NSS (the National Student Survey) in the UK, but they are not directly comparable and many countries do not have such systems.

“Entrance requirements tell us nothing about what value a university adds, and we prefer to look at measureable outcomes when possible.

“Also, entrance requirements can’t be compared globally anyway, as we judge completely open access universities, where if you graduate from high school you get a university place, with extremely selective institutions, such as French Grande Ecoles”.

Although the THE and QS look to answer the same question, they do so with completely different methodologies.

QS' ranking methodology (Data: QS)
QS’ ranking methodology (Data: QS)

The THE groups performance indicators into five distinct areas, with teaching, research and citations each accounting for 30% of a university’s final mark. 7.5% is decided by looking at international outlook, whilst innovation accounts for 2.5%.

By contrast, the QS heavily emphasize global academic reputation, and also considers employer reputation, student-to-faculty-ration, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio and international student ratio.

However, they both share a focus on global academic reputation, and, when speaking about the matter, the Acting Vice Chancellor confirmed that Durham need to raise its international profile in order to rise up the world .

“The UK league tables mainly focus on undergraduate provision and outcomes. The Times Higher and QS place more emphasis on our international reputation amongst other academics, highlighting the importance of enhancing our global research profile in all disciplinary area in which we choose to engage”.

So, in order to rise up the it seems that Durham has to improve its global academic reputation. But how should it go about doing this?

Tabitha Brown, a second year History student from Van Mildert College, believes that improving Durham’s year abroad schemes could help the University to scale the :

“I think that in terms of world , the fact that Durham study abroad programmes are not that popular, other than for linguists, could be a reason for Durham’s position.

“Also, the universities that Durham has international connections with are not as reputable as other university connections such as Edinburgh.

“I having a look at the options for study abroad programmes and wasn’t particularly impressed by them.

“I also know friends who were considering studying abroad but decided against tit because of the lack of choice. So maybe improving those would help Durham’s position”.

“I was having a look at the options for study abroad programmes and wasn’t particularly impressed by them”.

However, despite Brown’s feelings towards the year abroad schemes, Durham appears to have partnerships with many illustrious universities. Indeed, some of these have even been placed above the University in the world .

For example, Durham has an international partnership with the University of Tokyo which, according to the THE , is the 23rd best university in the world. The National University of Singapore, another university that Durham has a partnership with, ranks just two places lower, in 25th place.

Similarly, the University of British Colombia, another university that Durham has a partnership with, sits 32nd in the world .

It would therefore seem that many of the University’s year abroad schemes give students the opportunity to test themselves in some of the best universities in the world which will inevitably help to improve Durham’s worldwide reputation.

Saada Gurung, a first year studying Anthropology at Van Mildert College, believes that Durham’s minute population could be one of the reasons why the University languishes behind its Russell Group counterparts in the world league tables:

“I think Durham’s lower position in the world has a lot to do with its small size and scope. It’s not as well connected as bigger cities like London and Manchester”.

Furthermore, Laura Chen, an international fresher from Hong Kong studying English at Van Mildert College, claimed that landmarks like Durham’s castle and cathedral are unknown back home.

“It’s such a small place, and in most countries no one has heard of it. Places like Manchester, for example, are far better known for things like their football club”.

There seems to be a wealth of evidence to support this assertion. Of all the fourteen UK universities that QS place above Durham in the world , only Warwick and St Andrews have smaller populations. Furthermore, of all these universities, no less than twelve boast populations double the size that Durham.

“It’s such a small place, and in most countries no one has heard of it. Places like Manchester, for example, are far better known for things like their football club”.

This seems to paint a very bleak picture indeed. If the world are predominately decided on the basis of academic reputation, and Durham’s small population prevents it from matching the reputation of fellow Russell Group universities, then it seems the quest to rise up the is destined to be a perilous one.

However, if population does has such a large influence on the , then are the really accurate? Furthermore, if something seemingly as arbitrary as population does have an impact on the , should we pay attention to them?

This is a question that has puzzled many experts across the field of education over the last few years

Durham's world rankings history (Data: QS and THE)
Durham’s world history (Data: QS and THE)

One of the most high profile cases of this occurred in June 2012, when Simon Marginson, a professor at the University of Melbourne, claimed that the QS “are not sufficiently robust to provide data valid as social science”.

Perhaps the most scathing attack of all came from David Blanchflower, a tenured economics professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, who, in an article published in the New Statesman in 2011, called the QS “a load of old baloney”.

When justifying this, Professor Blanchflower commented that the tend to underestimate the quality of research in favor of what he calls “fluff”. The professor also questioned the emphasis that the place on having foreign students and faculty members.

Furthermore, despite the evidence gathered by the University of London, it seems that students are now less inclined to consider league tables as important.

Looking from a postgraduate perspective Andrew Robertson, the MCR President at Hatfield College, did consult the when considering whether to move from Cambridge to Durham in order to take a PhD in Astrophysics, but did not play a decisive role in his decision.

“While deciding where I should go for my PhD, my final choice was between here and Cambridge. I had been in Cambridge for my undergrad, and thought that a move would probably be best, but I was slightly put off by the level of research and the importance of PhD students in Durham versus Cambridge.

“Having said that, I think most people looking to do a PhD are less interested in the reputation of their university at large, and are more interested in the reputation of the department to which they are applying.

“For me, that was why I was happy to come to Durham because despite Cambridge clearly having a better international standing, the Astrophysics department to which I was applying in Durham does immensely well internationally, and features near the top of various lists specifically for the subject.

“I think most people looking to do a PhD are less interested in the reputation of their university at large”

Robertson also makes the point that, although Durham has significantly less PhD students than Cambridge, it has the second highest number of Astrophysics PhD students in the UK, which further influenced his decision.

However, despite claiming that his decision wasn’t ultimately based on league tables, Andrew did make the comment that they would have played a more prominent role in his considerations had he not wanted to remain in academia.

“My thinking that the overall university reputation is not so important for a PhD probably relates to my desire to stay in academia after finishing.

“If I was hoping for a job outside of academia this would probably be very different, as most graduate employers would not know that Durham Astrophysics is regarded particularly well”.

Robertson’s comments could be seen as reflecting the overriding opinion towards league tables, which is that a university’s performance in league tables will never fully reflect its strengths and weakness, but they are an informative guide of both current and prospective students.

With so many differing and conflicting systems and methodologies involved, it would seem that the choice of which league table to employ is almost as troublesome as the choice of which university to enrol in.

Photograph: Nicoletta Asciuto

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