Which is 2020’s top UK university?
According to The Times Higher Education World Rankings, released early last week, Oxford University once again takes the top spot. However, THE tables now jostle for attention among other providers such as The Guardian University League Tables, The Complete University Guide (CUG), and the Good University Guide (GUG). In contrast to THE, all three of these positioned Cambridge University as their number one.
This difference of opinion isn’t surprising. Each provider has a different methodology, uses different criteria, weightings etc. THE World Rankings look at international influence, but even within the UK-specific league tables, there is no guarantee that your university will be awarded a consistent ranking:
University College London ranked 9th (GUG) and 22nd (The Guardian)
University of Liverpool 28th (CUG) and 50th (The Guardian)
Cardiff 34th in (GUG) and 24th (CUG)
If you are tempted to look closer, A Guide to League Tables in Higher Education (HEPI, 2018) goes some way to unpicking the complexity. It flags the challenges and limitations – from handling exceptionally high or low scores, to managing subject areas, and meaningfully differentiating between institutions with close scores. It points out that reliance on reports such as the REF and the NSS builds in a time-lag, reducing the usefulness of league tables as strategic decision-making tools for universities.
The student view
Research firmly suggests that league tables do impact recruitment, influencing the choices of home and international students. In my recent report, From Selection to Satisfaction, sixth-formers told me they use high scores as a proxy for quality of teaching, student experience and employability as well as providing a useful tool for filtering down options:
"It was confusing. I wasn’t really provided with any information of where to start, so I searched the rankings."
-Geography applicant, 2020-21 entry
Despite relying on the data, students don’t engage deeply with how the scores are compiled. They rarely use filtering tools to focus on specific criteria such as employability or wellbeing, even if that is what matters to them. Although one provider’s methodology may be a better fit with their priorities, they probably won’t delve deep enough to find that out. They use multiple rankings and struggle to recall which providers they have used.
Once at university, the rankings become less important and can have a negative impact on student satisfaction as they raise expectations.
Metrics such as employability, which are reputation-based, can be slow to change, meaning that some mid to low-ranking institutions feel their status is impossible change. However, The Guardian is challenging the status quo by shaping its algorithms around student needs. It considers research to be largely irrelevant to undergraduates and has added in a Value-Added-Score that compares degree results with entry qualifications as a measure of learning gain. This has led to a top 20 that is noticeably different from other tables, with the introduction of institutions that are investing in delivering what today’s students want.
League tables raise the visibility of your university and provide an external endorsement. They may not be helpful for strategic decision making, but they do provide insight into how prospective students might perceive your institution – and that gives you a chance to do something about it:
Sixth-formers see summer schools and taster sessions in their subject area as a great way to improve their personal statement and give you the opportunity to demonstrate the quality of your teaching. Do make sure you provide bursaries to open these up to economically disadvantaged students.
Use your homepage to publicise your investment in quality teaching. As well as rankings, this can include testimonials from students as well as information on pedagogical initiatives such as digital learning programmes or experiential learning opportunities.
Get your current students talking, as well as posting, tweeting and instagramming about their positive experiences. Students trust one another more than they trust any rankings. Social media lets their voices be heard more widely.
Rankings can be influential, but their complicated methodologies are poorly understood by prospective students. When they turn to league tables, students really want evidence of excellent teaching, career impact and a student experience that resonates with their needs and values. So, invest in understanding what it is that students want and communicate concrete examples of how your institution adds value.
The end result could be an experience that your current students shout about and your prospective students will hear.