By Sam Sandham
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 Rankings 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?
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?
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