The yearly ritual of analysing university league tables is shared between past, prospective, and current students alike. Each year a series of rankings are released, quantifying our university’s merits and punishing its shortcomings. While the big two, Times Higher Education and QS World Rankings, take the cake for the most respected leaderboards, more comprehensive tables lie in the Good University Guide and the National Student Survey.
So what do these rankings all mean? Both nothing much and a whole lot. International leaderboards compare teaching standards, research quality, international outlook, and other important aspects of university life. Their importance is not to be overlooked, especially as a prospective student.
For international and visiting students the ranking of a university is often the most salient reason in deciding why to come to a university: it is why I, as an Australian, find myself 16,000 km away from my home, at the University of Edinburgh. It was the highest ranked institution of the 90 or so study abroad options with which I was presented. My experience is not in isolation either. Edinburgh’s breakthrough into the top 20 according to the QS World Rankings is likely to propel the number of visiting students even further, adding to the 60 per cent increase experienced over the past 5 years. It will no doubt attract attention from prized international academics, and potential funding sources too.
The uncomfortable reality behind this is that educational elitism works, and these rankings capture that. Given the substantial benefits that flow from a good ranking, it is entirely unsurprising to see that highly ranked institutions produce highly educated, competent and employable graduates. Putting the merits of this self-perpetuating cycle aside, students ought to take notice. If you are ambitious, seeking an excellent university experience, and want to make the most out of your university loans, then you ought to aim as high up the leaderboard as you can.
There are exceptions to the rule, and it is important to consider other factors when deciding on your institution, including location, financial viability, and personal preferences. Some universities specialise in unique and practical courses, others provide religious pastoral services, and others are tailored to certain minorities. Maybe you are headstrong on joining the underwater knitting society, or perhaps you want to head to an extremely rural location because you need to get away from your parents.
If, however, you are an average student seeking to optimise your education, then take notice. These ratings are compiled carefully each year, and reflect information you are not likely to be able to fully obtain or understand yourself. My home university is ranked 100 places lower than Edinburgh, and this manifests in tutorial sizes up to 50 students, an eradication of face-to-face teaching modules, and a program that does not even include a research dissertation. Edinburgh is not exceptional for providing these opportunities; it simply acknowledges the requirements of being a world-class institution.
So when it comes to filling out your UCAS preferences, give some weight to what the leaderboard says. The numbers do not lie, and they can tell you a great deal more than marketing spin will.
Image: Su Hongjia