From education to employment

University League Tables – Notoriously subjective and misleading

Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education

The Guardian’s university league tables are out and the headline news is that Nottingham Trent University has overtaken Nottingham University, “a member of the elite Russell Group” in the ranks.

I was surprised but it’s there in the paper so it must be true, right? Hmm, I’m not so sure. League tables are notoriously subjective and misleading. The Guardian’s are aimed at students to help them choose a course.

Trent University, formerly a polytechnic, might be full of very happy people but to say it’s not as good as Nottingham is a little confusing. It’s like saying chocolate is ‘better’ than chard because more people like it. Better in what way?

The Guardian ranks Nottingham Trent as the 16th best university with Nottingham Uni one below at 17th. However, the league table is also broken into subject tables and when I choose four academic subjects – Maths, Law, History and Economics – Nottingham Uni ranks higher than Nottingham Trent in every single one. But when I try out the popular and more practical Film and Business Studies, Trent comes out first.

It makes sense that job prospects in some creative, in-demand subjects are higher at Trent. Many popular arty subjects such as Fashion, Drama or Art are only offered by Trent and not by Nottingham Uni. We’re not comparing apples with apples.

The tables have been drawn up by an independent company called Intelligent Metrix and the paper says they are ranked on the factors “that matter to students”.

When I was entering university, what mattered to me the number of lectures I was expected to attend and the price of beer in the students’ union. But if you’re paying £25K to study, you have to look at the bigger picture.

So, let’s look at the rankings. Firstly, there is a Guardian score, which is arbitrary. Then it moves to student satisfaction: satisfied with the course, the teaching and the feedback.

I’m sure there are many students who love their course, their tutor and their feedback but how can someone studying Media in Coventry compare to a student in Microbiology in Bristol? I assume the latter might be having a tougher time – that’s the nature of the course, but that doesn’t mean Coventry is ‘better’.

Other rankings in the table – UCAS scores on entry, final results compared to entry qualifications and money spent on student – can’t really be compared unless you’re pitching identical courses against each other.

Continuation – whether students progress from the first year to the second year ­– is also taken into account and Matt Hiely-Rayner director of Intelligent Metrix says London’s universities show “weak performance” there.

Living in the capital is expensive and most students in London will struggle to maintain a lifestyle they could have in a northern city. This may contribute to the drop-out rate and might be why Leeds has jumped to 10th place and overtaken University College London in The Guardian’s league table.

Another factor is career progression after six months. Six months is nothing. Many students will be in any old job as they decide what to do. Progression after six or even 16 years would be more accurate.

I would like to see how many applicants there are per seat, how competitive the course is, the fee levels, the cost of living and more. There are so many things to consider when choosing a university.

The Guardian has compiled the tables based on what “we think is important” and that’s’ the crux. What’s important to one person isn’t important to another.

Some young people will find these tables useful but they should take them with a pinch of salt. Far more research is needed before making one of the biggest, and costliest, decisions of their life.

Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education

About William Clarence Education: The leading education advisory and consultancy service in the UK. With an unrivalled reach into the UK Schooling and University network, William Clarence offers unbiased advice to students and parents from around the world; at every stage of their academic journey.  From Independent School Application and Placement, full UCAS and University application consultancy, Oxbridge Applications  US College Admission and even Homeschooling programmes, William Clarence Education draws on a deep relationship driven network with schools, Universities and senior education figures within the industry.  By putting the student and family at the centre of the process, William Clarence ensures their clients reach their maximum potential and gain access to the very best of UK education.  

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