University league tables: beneficial or harmful?

A graph representing university league tables
30% of students stated that teaching quality was most important in university league tables. Source: Mohamed Hassan (Via pxhere)
It is evident that students do look at university rankings as part of their university application, but with each student’s different requirements, are they really important when selecting a higher education provider?

By Vicky Witts | Head of Comment

As the new academic year arrives, many sixth form and college students will be beginning to prepare their UCAS applications, and plan visits to various university open days.

Some students may already have decided where they want to study, but many prospective undergraduates will likely still consider rankings and league tables when applying to universities.

Times Higher Education annually produces a comprehensively ranked list of universities on a global scale, based on “13 carefully calibrated performance indicators that measure an institutions performance across four areas: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook”.

This year’s 2022 rankings by the Complete University Guide saw the University of Oxford taking the top position on the list, with Cardiff University placing at number 189 globally, and 25th within the UK.

Like the Times’ rankings, the Complete University Guide also summarises its score system as four categories: entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality, and graduate prospects. These are perhaps more student interest-focused than the Times’ table, but it’s clear that rankings and tables have become a large focus for students and higher education providers.

But just how important are university rankings in selecting a university for higher education?

It is evident that students do look at university rankings as part of their university application. Numerous universities choose to display their rankings as part of their advertising material and on their websites.

The criteria that websites such as the Complete University Guide use to break down their rankings are mostly focused on the interests of students, in that they look at student satisfaction and graduate prospects as a large part of their judgement. These are important aspects of life as a student.

League tables also allow students to see the opinions of other students about the universities that they are applying to, so that they can decide on one which meets their needs and generally produces high numbers of satisfied students.

In the 2017 International Student Survey carried out by Hobsons, 30% of the students they questioned stated that a high quality of teaching was the most important factor for them when selecting a university. In this case, ranking systems which cover this criterion may be particularly useful to highlight the top universities for high quality teaching.

However, university league tables may not be suitable or necessary for all prospective university applicants.

Rankings typically only consider academic criteria, which may not be of interest to all students. Instead, some students may find that the social aspects and atmosphere of a university are equally or more important in their decision making, and in which case, university league tables may not be helpful.

These specific tables also do not consider individual subjects, and so it may be the case that whilst one university may be highly ranked overall, it may not be considered the ‘best’ in every subject that it offers.

League tables and elitism

There has been a wide amount of criticism towards university rankings, and towards the 24 Russell Group universities specifically, that promoting some universities as ‘the best’ or better than others encourages elitism and a negative view of degrees obtained from lower-ranking universities.

Whilst 7 of the top 10 UK universities in this year’s Complete University Guide rankings are part of the Russell Group, there were other universities that did not score as highly overall but still recorded high levels of student satisfaction.

Aberystwyth University, ranked 58th overall, placed second for student satisfaction, with a rating of 86%, suggesting that many students enjoy their university experience regardless of how their university ranks in the league tables.

Ordering universities in a format which implies that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ places to study also presents the issue that degrees from lower-ranking degrees may be viewed as less valuable, or not as valid as those from top universities.

Whilst it may be the case that some employers will look for graduates from high-ranking universities, is it really fair to suggest that where you choose to study makes your work and education less valid?

Clearly there are benefits and flaws to current university ranking systems, and their usefulness differs depending on each individual student’s main priorities.

It is thus important for students to consider multiple factors when selecting a higher education provider.

Victoria Witts Comment

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