What does our sinister obsession with university rankings tables mean?

They’re beyond pointless


Stop! Stop whatever you’re doing, stop it right now – I’ve got some big news for you.

It’s the biggest news since 9/11. It’s the biggest news since Jesus got off his slab, the biggest news since the Berlin Wall came down without a shot being fired.

Today the Times Higher Education supplement released a new university rankings table. Before you scurry around picking up the bloodied shanks of your exploded head (tbf it is shocking news) let’s just repeat that for good measure: guys, there’s a new university rankings table out.

This new table is the (not at all absurdly) named “Table of Tables”. Compiled by taking some other (not at all useless) uni rankings tables and assigning them (not at all arbitrary) points based on some other stats before doing something else and nonsensically mashing them all together to make this mighty Table of Tables.

They’ve been making this thing since 2008.

Do you know what’s surprising about this new table? Do you know what’s in there which will make you scratch your head, chuckle to yourself, furnish your mind with beauty and help you see the world afresh all over again?

Absolutely nothing.

Did you know that Oxford is better than Nottingham Trent?

Did you know that Oxford is better than Nottingham Trent?

University rankings tables, no matter who provides them, no matter what the findings, are all exactly the same, and always have been.

As the sky is blue, as the pope is Catholic, as Joey Barton is a mouthy prick: Oxford and Cambridge are the best universities in the country. And below them, halfheartedly place swapping like teams who don’t want to get into the Europa League are the other unis which aren’t shit: Imperial, UCL, Durham, Warwick, Exeter.

Cruelly hampered by being as predictable as the speaking clock, the harassed and no doubt depressed people who make these tables are, according to a friend of mine who worked for the Times Higher Education supplement “not even sure” what they’re doing.

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“Great table this week guys, give yourselves a pat on the back”

But I know what they’re doing: under immense pressure to tell us something new about an atrophied subject they descended into absurdity.

Did you know the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine ranks fifth for “international outlook” – climbing nine places since last year? Did you know De Montfort has been lauded as the “most welcoming” university in the UK for three of the last five years? Did you know that someone is making a living out of making these inane judgments?

It’s amazing people (your parents) still lap up this shite, still forensically examine the pull-out good uni guide supplements every other Sunday, still nod their heads sagely and say things like “Oh, I didn’t know Strathclyde was so low for student satisfaction!”

If you spend too much time looking at these tables you’ll forget how exquisite and remarkable the world really is.

Consider the fact that everything you can see now – the screen, the iphone, these words, all of it, including your eyes – was made in exploding stars. When we die they’re (eventually) where we’ll all end up, back in an exploding star, some five billion years from now.

The feeling you get when you think about these things, impossibly magnificent things, is like the feeling I get when I think about uni rankings tables.

The hostile vacuum of space takes me back to the Table of Tables, the sheer scale and reach of the Table of Tables pointlessness.

It’s pointlessness on the cosmic scale.