Are university rankings really that important?

For sixth form and undergraduate students it is that time of year again when the application process for universities is in full swing. While there are multiple factors affecting which university people apply to, there is no doubt that university rankings inform many of these choices. When I was applying to university and Covid meant that I couldn’t visit prospective universities, my decision was influenced by these rankings. In light of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2024 being released it feels like a good time to reflect on the value of these statistics and the extent to which students should consider them when applying to academic institutions.

Firstly, it is important to consider what it means when we discuss the academic ranking of a university. There are a variety of factors such as research quality, course content and student-to-staff ratio that are considered within the rankings. These often vary among different ranking organisations and are represented by numbers in a list with little explanation behind how they were calculated. It is easy to see numbers on a list and to think that number one and number thirty are miles apart. However, a research study done by Paul and Kyle Grayson suggests that these statistics magnify the very small differences between the universities. Rather than a linear hierarchy, there are two groups of universities which cluster together. While one group had greater success in research, the other provided higher value in learning. Furthermore, the student satisfaction among both groups was negligible.

Furthermore, one assumption that informs many university rankings is that research quality informs course quality. This may be important when considering postgraduate degrees which are largely made up of a research project in a particular field. However, at undergraduate level, there are a variety of other factors which contribute to course quality. These factors are often individual and can include the availability of different module options, the style of teaching presented and the student-to-staff ratio. In most cases, these factors cannot be measured in a single statistic.

The idea that exists in a surprising number of students that going to a higher-ranking university means that you are more intelligent is unfair. Firstly, there are so many assets of a person’s personality which inform how intelligent they are. I have met many students in Durham who have little knowledge about the world and cannot cook or clean for themselves. There are so many variables to whether someone can be considered smart and academic intelligence is only a small part of this. Furthermore, going to a higher-ranked university doesn’t necessarily even indicate that you are more academically intelligent. One of my year abroad friends attends Herriot Watt University and has told me about the prejudice and assumptions she has received from University of Edinburgh students because of the university she goes to. However, she got places at both universities and specifically chose Herriot Watt for the course and the student atmosphere. There are so many valid reasons to pick a university which are not based on the academic ranking. For example, for some students being surrounded by a large community of students from a similar background is the most important factor to picking a university.

For some degree subjects in which there is a clear path towards a career such as engineering or law it might make sense to consider academic rankings and research opportunities. For subjects where there is no such path, there is no reason why the Spanish course someone studied should inform the legal job opportunities that they have. The role of the university has changed in recent years. In the past, a university education was not an expectation for as many careers. However, now university is often a stepping stone for many students to progress professionally and therefore academic rankings should be considered far less important than other factors.

For example, the experiences someone has obtained at university are just as if not more important. Therefore, factors such as the funding of the university or the different societies can also be an important consideration as the connection that universities have with employers is undoubtedly varied. Furthermore, a small student-to-staff ratio will often mean that there is greater support for students. In my own experience at Durham, I feel that the college system has ensured that my well-being is cared for. After all, these factors are also important as not only are you studying in a place but in most cases, you are also living in the community for three or four years.

However, is there any value in the university rankings? For example, if you go to a better-ranked university will you be more likely to get a job in the future? It would be a lie to suggest that there is no effect of job prospects on which university you attend. However, there are so many interrelated factors that combine to form a job prospect. Firstly, The BBC has found that the degree you study is much more important than the university you attend. These job prospect statistics are often skewed given that universities such as Cambridge offer more select and limited degree options which leads to higher paying jobs than an arts university which does not offer STEM options. Secondly, it would be very wrong to believe that university is the greatest factor which determines your job. Your parents’ income, where you grew up, what school you went to and your university all combine to form a job prospect. However, recently there have been increases in attempts to mask identity and which university you attended as a factor for a job interview so in the future it may be even less important.

The UK has a long way to go before the assumptions about university rankings stop affecting economic and social positions. However, if this article shows anything it is that university rankings should not be the sole consideration of any student applying for a degree course. Research experts consider university rankings flawed and it seems that slowly employers are also placing less emphasis on the location but rather the experiences obtained throughout the degree.

 Featured image: Emily Ranquist on Pexels

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