Table Troubles

FELIX NUGEE asks if where we rank really matters.

Earlier this week Cambridge slipped down to 7th place in the Times Higher Education’s rankings. It’s not that I’m bitter or anything but it has led me to ask whether anyone should really care.

It’s always nice to beat MIT or more importantly The Other Place, but why does it really matter what place in the world we are? Doesn’t the way that these tables vary so widely from year to year show that we shouldn’t take them to measure how valuable the university experience is? I certainly don’t feel that I’m starting this term year at a worse university than last year.

There might be a lot of pride to be gained when you realise that we’ve been ranked higher than The The Other Place in just about every table from the QS World University Rankings to the illustrious Student Beans Sex Poll. But when you look beyond this you notice these numbers just don’t have much relation to our day-to-day lives.

Only 30% of the numbers compiled for the THE guide are even related to teaching in the university and it’s a similar story with QS. The bulk of the rest of the score is determined by academic research.

It might be nice to know that our academics are widely read and respected but the amount of times you’ve been cited has nothing to do with how good a teacher you are. Sure you probably wouldn’t want to go to a university that hasn’t produced anything of value but when it gets to the top the margins are so fine it makes very little difference.

The ranks are also very Anglo-centric with citations almost exclusively checked against journals that publish in English. It might be the language of Science but an academic who doesn’t send their papers to English journals is not necessarily worse for it.

Even the importance of domestic rankings have been overstated given how far the quality of your academic experience is determined by your department rather than the university as a whole. This is especially true of Cambridge where teaching is organised by college and each student’s experience is even less homogeneous.

The reason people care so much? They want to go the best university in the world. With education getting more expensive and the things that make it good being so complex maybe the number they’re focusing on isn’t a particularly significant one.

Besides the next time you sit pre-drinking in a court that’s centuries old and anticipate the hung-over academic grilling you’ll get the next day, you might just think there’s something here that’s impossible to quantify.