University league tables: they’re just a bit shit


The physicist Galileo once said, “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” This sentiment might be recognisable to some of you as your department’s own motto for teaching.

But why is this the case? Isn’t Durham a ‘World Top 100 University’, as the recent QS World University of 2018 have confirmed? Isn’t it a “first rate educational environment”, as our Vice-Chancellor boasts, a consistent top-scorer within UK league tables?

Isn’t Durham a ‘World Top 100 University’?

University league tables dominate the news. You will no doubt remember looking at them yourself when applying to higher education and using them to inform your choice of whether to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge or, failing that, sourcing your next best option. But now you are here, in reflection, how useful were they really?

The problem with university league tables is that they’re a bit shit. The information they provide can be confusing and irrelevant. For example, some league tables focus on the quality of research undertaken by the university’s academics.

Do you really care if your lecturer can write a really good research paper?

But when you are a 17-year-old looking at where you want to spend the next three years of your life, do you really care if one of the academics can write an excellent research paper if they’re unable to write legibly on a whiteboard and teach the information? I’ve had lectures where the hardest part of the hour was staying awake, but at least the lecturer has won a national award for their research.

Some league tables focus more on the student experience, but even they have flaws. The Guardian’s university league table uses data from the National Student Survey (NSS) to measure everything from course fulfilment to teaching satisfaction and beyond. Departments are rewarded when their students fill out the NSS. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) then uses data from the NSS to evaluate student satisfaction, and good scores from the TEF mean a university can increase its tuition fees in line with inflation.

Of course, marketisation schemes like this are disagreeable to those who believe education shouldn’t be treated as a business. This debate has caused students’ unions and JCRs at a number of universities to boycott the NSS, including those at Durham and Oxbridge, thus making the data less reliable in league tables as fewer and fewer students partake. So why should you trust them?

Movements to boycott the NSS have made it unreliable

If league tables aren’t the answer, how can prospective students find out which university, if any, is right for them? The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is visit the university on an open day. Open days have a feature that league tables are very good at not revealing: what students really think.

No matter how much research you do online, it’s always going to be difficult to find out the things that matter about the student experience, like the cost of a pint. As an open day ambassador, I have felt most useful when a parent, with a wry smile and a knowing look, asks, “What’s it really like?”, and I have been able to answer honestly, watching their smile turn into shock and fear. Talking to students who don’t have to pretend is possibly the only way to accurately learn what life is like at university.

Visiting the university also means you get to see what it looks like in real life, as opposed to the online photos in which students smile over their work like they’ve just been told they’ll get a first if they can pretend to forget about the cost of tuition fees and their Citalopram prescription.

Open days are more useful than anything you can find in a prospectus

Seeing where you’ll be studying, how far your accommodation is from the lecture halls, and how long it takes to walk to town is far more useful to a prospective student than knowing the university’s student to staff ratio.

Knowing the geography of where you’ll be spending the next three years of your life is helpful. Some people like the hustle and bustle, the huge range of shopping and entertainment, and the high crime rate of a large city. Whereas others like the rural surroundings, the shorter distances, and the dire nightlife of a smaller town. How can you be sure which is for you without a visit to both? When I applied to university, I remember comparing the league table positions of each university I was interested in over the past five years.

Now I am about to graduate, I realise that the wealth of benefits one has from visiting a university and speaking to students far exceeds any league table. Open days are much more informative, and definitely more entertaining, than anything you can find out online.

Photograph: Zoë Boothby

One thought on “University league tables: they’re just a bit shit

  • “Movements to boycott the NSS have made it unreliable”

    To be fair, the NSS’s own methodology has done a fairly good job of that. The data collection and questions are almost laughably subjective, and if a research student here had proposed it as a serious evidence base for their research, the response might have been…savage, let’s say. Lots of people have a problem with the whole idea, for one simple reason: if you are a final year student in a university, you’ve never been anywhere else, so how can you reliably compare the totality of your experience with any one else’s? You can’t really, but these 20 or so data points reduce all of this to a bunch of easily digestible sludge that a bunch of accountants at the DfE, and at the Treasury can mash up to give government a big old club to smash the HE sector around the head.

    The man essentially responsible for the development of the NSS, the late Prof. Paul Ramsden, was big in educationalism in the early noughties, and he figured large in the HE teaching landscape at the time – his book, “Learning to Teach in Higher Education” was heavily used for HE teaching qualifications). He had the ear of quite a lot of policy makers at this time, and he is pretty much the father of this metric-driven dystopia, and had set up its Australian counterpart, the CEQ, while working there.

    But of course making NSS part of TEF has guaranteed that any senior manager will be panicking about these numbers. Recent strategy mails going around the university have kept mentioning the words “league tables matter”, all while looking jumpier than a man with itching powder down his pants at a Mexican jumping bean convention. It was profoundly depressing. But that’s the point, really: you have an environment where every single thing has to have a metric attached to it. the physicist, Lord Kelvin, was very big on this kind of thing, claiming that you couldn’t understand something properly if you couldn’t measure it. Einstein thought otherwise, And frankly, I’m with Albert on this. There are a whole bunch of things that NSS and TEF simply cannot measure, but everything has to be reduced to the numbers to power the league tables. But we are forced into playing the stupid, stupid game.

    And this article hits it on the head. The totality of the experience is important. all the stuff the tables can’t mention. For me, who was here last century, this includes tiny things like being taught by Carlos Frenk, for example, who was a lot younger, a lot less grey-haired, and a lot more luxuriant on the upper lip. And the way he pronounced “Levi-Civitta” was brilliant. Arnold Wolfendale’s lectures were wonderful, but utterly indecipherable if you read your notes back even an hour later. The point was that you were exposed to these fantastic people, doing brilliant work. The lectures were the least interesting part, really, because you got chance to talk to people, and have them direct you at the things they thought you needed to know. This place is full of talented people, by the time you start a degree, a lot of the impetus should be your own, not just waiting for a set of lecture notes to be poured into your head. Education is not a consumer experience, no matter how hard the system tries to tell you it is. It’s not like buying a tin of beans, because you have to put effort in to. It’s symbiotic. Good teachers (and they are not necessarily the good researchers, but you soon learn to tell which is which) push you, and you push them back in turn. That’s why university teaching is such fun sometimes. But teaching had traditionally been less valued. Why? Because there’s a clear career path for the research .Publications, income, REF can give easy measures of performance. It’s easier to make a case for promotion. Good reachers are recognised, but it’s harder to justify progression for the teaching-led academic because it’s so much harder to measure.

    But I digress. The basic message her is that the writer is calling git about right. We are lucky to be here in a pretty great university, with so much history and potential, A league table doesn’t tell you that, and the differences between the best are arguable, and sometimes specific, anyway. So make the best of the time and the considerable resources you have here, it goes all too quickly


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