The ever-changing league tables

Alastair Thomas
Deputy News Editor

Here’s a question. Can a university really be ‘better’ than another? League tables want to tell youyes, because, well, that’s their job. People have a desire to have important decisions made for them by objective facts, things that aren’t opinions or hearsay. With something like going to university, we want to know exactly what we’re in for, and so there’s always that temptation for us to consult the league tables, but should we?

I’ve always thought there is something almost ritualistic about parents and students sitting down and scrolling through endless lists of university names, trying to find some tangible evidence that a certain institution is objectively better than another. If this truth can’t be found on the Sunday Times University Guide then you move onto The Guardian; if that fails, try the haughtily named Complete University Guide. This odyssey will prove ultimately to be fruitless, because there is only so much a statistic can tell you, and sometimes the statistics can’t tell you much at all.

Take our own fine University. Glasgow dropped ten places to 25th on the Sunday Times’ 2015 league table, yet according to the National Student Survey, we’ve risen into the top 10. According to the Times, “the university almost caught its old rival, Edinburgh, in last year’s league table, but has slipped back outside the top 20 in the latest edition. Student satisfaction and reduced staffing levels were mainly responsible.” According to the National Student Survey, student satisfaction had in fact risen to 91%.

Not only is this completely contradictory, it also makes me question why we even have league tables especially if they’re barely in agreement with each other. It’s easy to understand why top universities must like them: Oxbridge, LSE and St Andrews will always hit those top five spots on the tables, and that cements their reputation as ‘objectively’ the best higher education institutions in the country. However, universities lower down the table thus look worse, even though they may not be ‘bad’ universities, just like Oxbridge may not always be the ‘best’. But because of the cruel, unpassionate rankings, all the rest are playing catch up in a race that has already been won.

Oddly enough, employers often aren’t even that interested in University rankings. Of course, they are going to know that, for instance, Glasgow is going to have a better reputation than a smaller university like Caledonian. However, this isn’t the end of the story; employers are also concerned with what you do with your time during your time at university. A good degree from a good university may not always be enough; it is also important to have other feathers in your figurative cap.

Similarly, universities aren’t holistic, homogenous entities. Within them, different subjects and courses are taught to varying degrees of quality, and that’s why you have the Goliath of Oxford being beaten at a subject like Linguistics by David of Lancaster University. There are so many facets to what makes a university ‘good’, whether that is quality and price of accommodation, the nightlife of the town or the particular degree you’re doing, that simply listing an institution amongst others won’t be particularly constructive.

If you want to choose a university based on its ranking on an ever­changing league table, you’re doing  it wrong. A much better idea is just to visit the place and decide for yourself.