Why Bother With League Tables?

SEBASTIAN SALEK: uni league tables aren't all they're cracked up to be, we're better off not bothering with them.

Well done guys, Cambridge is on top for another year.

By all means enjoy the inevitable warm feeling of knowing how great our alma mater is, but ask yourself: what does our latest accolade even mean? I’m not denying that Cambridge’s success is deserved – it produces some fantastic people and I’m assured that our time here sets us up for life – but can you really convert three years of supervisions, study and Cindies into a number and pit it against the rest of them?

I’m no statistician so I’ll leave you to analyse the nitty-gritty of their methods yourselves, but certain aspects of these league tables just don’t add up to me.

Firstly, graduate prospects: most of the league tables use figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey which notes employment figures six months after graduation. Immediately this discriminates against budding solicitors, barristers, doctors, vets and academics, all of whom will be in further study for at least a year before entering their chosen profession and so won’t contribute to a high score in this category.

Then there are the categories themselves: in the Guardian league table, three out of eight of them are essentially different manifestations of student satisfaction. This is problematic because the table is based on results from the National Student Survey which, let’s be honest, hardly anyone actually fills out. Therefore, I’m willing to bet that their sample size is rather small and not all too representative of the majority.

In addition, the disparities between the rankings of different tables show just how unreliable they are. Take Imperial, for example, which ranks fourth in the Complete University Guide and the Times but thirteenth and fourteenth respectively in the Guardian and the Sunday Times.

Stats aside, I don’t think we even need to be reminded that we’re the best. Oxbridge’s reputation is entrenched in British culture, and I know that I’ll have the same amount of affinity with this place and just as impressive a CV whether Cambridge ranks top, second behind Oxford, or anywhere else for that matter. The same goes for the guys at the Other Place, who are going to be in exactly the same fortunate position as us regardless of what happens year on year.

You might argue that the tables are a good way of recognising rapidly improving universities, and some other universities do indeed seem to revel in tiny increments year on year: I have it on good authority that there was a quasi-party in the LSE library when they overtook Oxford in the Complete University Guide last month. Surely that’s just a little bit petty? I think we’re much better off celebrating respective niches and the achievements that come with them rather than exposing blatant insecurity.

At the end of the day, we all have a rough idea of what the better and worse universities are, and that’s all you really need to know. Education is a subjective concept, so trying to plot the position of every university in the country with respect to the others is quite simply absurd. I fear that putting it plainly and unequivocally is only going to risk inferiority at the bottom, insecurity in the middle, and complacency at the top.


  • Logic

    We're winning. Ergo, not waste of time.

  • Answer to headline:

    because we're top!

  • UntopicalSatire

    They do serve a purpose for many other universities, even if the same few are always at the top every year. It's a bit like Scottish football.

    • celtic

      Its a pity only the Scottish team in dark blue has collapsed though

  • Big Handsome Man

    I'd say it's too easy to look at this from a Cambridge perspective, and forget that although the usual two always seem to occupy the top places, league tables are a useful way for prospective students to compare other universities, many of which lack a big name and Oxbridge's fame.

    • however

      if the league tables are as flawed as they appear to be, surely they form a poor basis for comparison?

      • Big Handsome Man

        I'm not saying that students should use league tables as their sole method of comparison. However, given the names of two fairly obscure universities, I would say that a quick glance at some league tables would be a decent, and easy, starting point in distinguishing the two, particularly if one is clearly ranked far higher than the other. Surely this is better than nothing?

    • Fair point, but..

      …when the position of other universities varies so much depending on the league table, and jumps around year on year, is that really a reliable way of comparing? A bit confusing really and perhaps more hindrance than help.

  • why?

    because we win 'em

  • Tabler

    Maybe league tables are pointless for those with the grades for universities with reputations "entrenched in British culture," but what about someone hoping to get into a university 'lower' in the Russell Group, or – God forbid – maybe even outside of it – especially if their school fails to provide them with enough information about where to apply. I defintely wouldn't have known that the University of Sheffield is supposed to be better than the University of Swansea – and I still wouldn't if I hadn't just checked a few league tables. Saying we don't need tables because everybody already knows we're amazing is probably even more petty than celebrating being at the top of one…

    • missed point

      I think the main point being raised is that the league tables that we have aren't good enough or particularly reliable. Also that it's actually quite difficult to condense education into figures, and that before just smugly cheering a "win" it is worth looking at what the statistics – or manipulation of them – are trying to claim.
      They don't really provide a very helpful basis with which to compare ANY unis, not just the Russell group and Oxbridge. Each league table shows a very particular and very slanted interpretation of quite dubiously collected "data", hence why they vary so much from table to table.

      • Tabler

        I'm not sure it was a missed point – more, a point on the "stats aside" paragraph of the article. But yes. Obviously stats are reductive. Stats are always reductive, unfortunately. But without these (bad) stats, what are people lacking in university educated parents and helpful schools to do?

      • Wrong argument

        Then obviously the problem (if it exists) is with the *implementation* of the league tables, not their existence. "They don't work" isn't an argument for abolishing them, it's an argument for improving them.

        • I think

          the crux is: can you ever really quantify education?

          • UCAS points


  • missing the point

    That the guides are pretty useless is both obvious and irrelevant. We’re not using them to choose a uni: we’re already here, and we know that Cambridge is at least one of the best, so being ranked top just gives us an excuse to crow over Oxford.

    As for any prospective students, they’d have to be pretty useless themselves not to follow the links to find out what the criteria were if they were going to use a guide for such an important decision as choosing where to go to uni.

  • Over-worked

    'Stats aside, I don’t think we even need to be reminded that we’re the best. Oxbridge’s reputation is entrenched in British culture, and I know that I’ll have the same amount of affinity with this place and just as impressive a CV whether Cambridge ranks top, second behind Oxford, or anywhere else for that matter.'

    This is the only thing which helps me tolerate this place.

    • but…

      these days, getting a 2.ii will screw you over for life, especially if you want to be an academic.

      Enjoy your Tab career whilst you have any sort of career Mr Salek!

  • missed the point

    I think you've ignored the main point of league tables. They're not so the people who are at the universities can feel smug, but so that the people applying to the universities have some sort of idea what the top universities are (either in general or for their subject). I found them very useful when deciding which universities to consider when I applied. Of course it doesn't matter if Cambridge is first or second, but it DOES matter if UWE is 5th or 50th, and you wouldn't necessarily know without looking.

    Oh and by the way, I'm fairly sure that the reason they pump the national student survey is that they have to get a certain proportion of students to fill it in before the university can be listed.

  • Desmond

    "Education is a subjective concept, so trying to plot the position of every university in the country with respect to the others is quite simply absurd. I fear that putting it plainly and unequivocally is only going to risk inferiority at the bottom, insecurity in the middle, and complacency at the top."

    Yeah we all know your dirty secret Salek; concerning a bit of inferiority in Tripos performance…

    But actually, some of what you say is insightful. Why are "graduate prospects" measured on employment stats and not on academic postgraduate places. We are an academic institution after all…

  • Nitty Gritty

    Have you thought at all about some of your criticisms of league tables?

    Firstly the matter of employment after six months. In the tables, further full-time study counts as employment so this does not 'discriminate against budding solicitors, barristers, doctors, vets and academics'. In the case of doctors, dentists and vets, employment percentages carry no weight in the institutional ranking.

    Now you claim that the NSS is unreliable as hardly anyone bothers. In fact, NSS data is only available when the response rate is over 50% and at least 23 individual responses (per subject per institution). This satisfies the statisticians but not you?

    As to the question of the disparity between tables, obviously different methodologies are employed but the key different between say the Complete Guide and the Guardian is that the former includes research quality while the latter does not. Presumably because the quality of research has little bearing on your satisfaction as an undergrad.

    It was very easy to find out all this information. If you were making a league table would you exclude further study or include statistically insignificant results? Presumably not, so why assume professional data analysts would? I guess because it's easier to write an article if half of it's unsubstantiated speculation.

    Stats (cast!) aside, interesting article towards the end, but I'd argue that having this information is good for prospective students. Most people have a pretty good idea of which unis are better than others, but these tables might help choose one which will bring you more success and satisfaction in marginal cases.

    • Although..

      the NSS results may be statistically significant, I'd argue that they're not reliable.

      I don't tell my friends from other universities that my lecturers are shoddy, the course is badly thought out and my supervisions are often a waste of time, because despite all that, the course is seriously hard and I know I'm having to work much longer hours than those elsewhere.

      I'm not sure I'd tell an anonymous survey about those things either if I knew they would be detrimental to the value of my degree.

    • Examiner

      I give Salek's article a 3rd, by the following Tripos criterion:

      "Work that, while showing some knowledge of the material, is seriously deficient in understanding and breadth of reference."

      Normally, people who get a 2.ii are supposed to improve, but for Salek, it is evidently the other way…

  • umm

    "I’m assured that our time here sets us up for life"


    A couple of years after you graduate nobody will care about your degree

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