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.

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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.