White Horse Digital – University League Tables: Relevant for decision making or just a load of old tosh?

We love a bit of data these days. Even our friendships, it seems, are governed by someone else’s algorithm (hello Facebook). Everything from your holiday hotel, your car’s performance and your social media activity is coded and analysed. But is all that data really useful to us as consumers? Or is it true that there are simply ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics’?

When it comes to universities, can the league tables really help prospective students? Or is it just a nice set of numbers that the marketing department can bandy around on the website, to make themselves look good? The Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times and the Complete University Guide all compile university league tables, so there’s a plethora of information out there. However, each one uses different criteria and weighting, so the problems start right there.

Measuring Impact

Which? surveyed prospective students last year and found that the most important topics to them are course content (77%), academic reputation (57%), distance from home (57%) and quality of academic facilities (57%). While some of those are measurable by league tables, others are more personal and less easy to quantify.  International students set more store by the charts than UK students but even so, the most important factor in their choice is word of mouth.  And that’s something that’s vital for UK students too. Parents might be scouring the tables for information such as contact time, but that’s unlikely to mean much to a 17 year old school girl.  Students are much more likely to listen to other students and thanks to social media, that’s increasingly possible. What’s more, they’re likely to be looking at an entirely different set of criteria to the ones the university authorities want to discuss.

As a result, some establishments, such as Edge Hill and Cambridge, are using alternative prospectuses, enabling students to chat to prospective newcomers, but in a controlled way.  It’s still unclear how much influence the league tables have on students’ choice of university. Research by Edinburgh University suggests students favour reputation, with individuals preferring older institutions, especially members of the prestigious Russell Group, to newer ones.  However the NUS claims that increasing fees have prompted more students to choose establishments closer to home, so they can save money on accommodation and travel.

Whatever is most important for you, it seems the information is out there. We took a closer look at the best ways to read between the tables and make the numbers work for you.

  1. Decide on your priorities: Before you get swayed by the figures, work out what’s most important to you. Location? The course content? Entry requirements? Future careers? Make a list and jot down a few favourites. Then use the league tables to check your hunches.
  2. What are the current politics? Student satisfaction scores rate what the students think of their university and course, but in general, these scores tend to be roughly similar between the institutions.If one centre dips dramatically from one year to the next, it’s worth finding out what else is going on – it might be nothing to do with the academic experience.
  3. Who’s teaching you? A raft of high profile teaching staff in, say, mathematics might look impressive on paper, but it’s not going to help if you’re a history student. High numbers of staff to students can present a good headline – but what’s the actual contact time that you’ll have with them?
  4. Where do the figures come from? Facts and figures are one thing, but some stats are subjective – the views of students, for example. A few negative personal experiences in one academic year can skew the results considerably.
  5. Do they paint a full picture? Some statistics, such as graduate prospects, provide an idea of what graduates do after they leave, but they’re collected a mere six months after leaving. There are a number of reasons why this figure might not give you a very clear picture, including:- Some industry sectors might be slower to employ. Some geographical areas might have fewer employment opportunities. Not in work doesn’t always mean ‘unemployed’ – they might be taking time out to travel, look after children, or simply put their feet up, if they’ve got the money. You never know where a job might lead. It might not look like a graduate job, but who knows?
  6. All subjects are not the same: Certain universities might not come out of the tables well, despite having a fantastic reputation in a particular subject area. Results might be roughly equal to other establishments but if you’re a drama student and the university has a brilliant relationship with the the manager of a big regional theatre, poring over league tables won’t help.
  7. A few points don’t mean a lot: Scores can be so similar that a few places up and down are neither here nor there. A tiny change in figures can affect placings disproportionately – don’t set too much store by a few chart places.
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