Why are Cambridge students so obsessed with League Tables?
Our obsession with league tables is unproductive and reveals insecurities.
Let me take you back to September, that dead piece of time before returning to Cambridge. This is the time when students, willing to read anything that isn’t related to their reading lists, begin to turn back to the Tab. Out of all the pieces shared on the Tab Cambridge’s Facebook page that month, the ones that received the most reactions were related to the university’s position in league tables. Evidently, we seem to like news of our success. And it’s not just the Tab making this a story- last week Varsity’s print editorial made note of Cambridge coming top in the Table of Tables.
So, why is it that we like these sorts of stories so much? Of course, part of it is a bit of fun in an old rivalry with Oxford. Their student press is no different in reporting victories, thus contributing to something that resembles a varsity clickbait contest. But what I found interesting was that the most reacted to article (most of them angry), was one reporting that Cambridge was second behind Oxford in world university rankings.
Clearly, we are really quite proud and defensive of our reputation. But consider this in the light of the Times Higher Education student experience rankings, in which Cambridge came 59th in welfare. This news too was greeted with anger and a consensus that something needed to change. Surely then, it follows that if we want Cambridge to do something about matters such as student welfare, we should want the University to do badly?
It seems that we are almost living double lives. On the outside, we must uphold our excellent reputation which almost, I might suggest, reveals just a little bit of doubt inside. Pretty much all of us are, at times, discontented with various aspects of our lives here. The problems that we talk about range from the mundane, such as the lack of nightlife and overpriced buttery food, to more pressing matters, such as sleep deprivation and anxiety. Is it that by looking at league tables, we are looking for some hollow validation that the last all-nighter was in fact worth it?
It's not that we aren't vocal about our dissatisfaction and often legitimate concerns. There are numerous examples of problems being brought to light: take the worrying findings of the Tab's sexual health survey as an example. A lot of students struggle to find a healthy work-life balance, which it seems odd to take such pride in predominantly academic league tables. On the surface then, we seem to be a contradictory and confused lot, determined to do well but concerned about the impact it has upon our well-being.
In this sense league tables paper over the cracks and gives a one dimensional view (at least as headlines) of the University. I’m not saying that Cambridge is awful and we should all want it to do badly. There are many parts of university life- college community, world-class supervisors, you name it- that ought to be celebrated. However, there are problems, and I just worry that league tables don’t entirely reflect this, at least not as headlines.
Ultimately, by getting excited about university league tables, we are feeding institutional complacency. Cambridge is an institution that works on a global reputation, something into which questions of student satisfaction don’t really figure. If I put it like this, would you turn down the Table of Tables 1st ranked university on the grounds that its provisions for student wellbeing weren’t up to scratch? The answer is almost certainly no, but you should have had to think about it more. And that’s the problem: so long as there is a queue of 18 year olds happy to buy into a reputation, the University is unlikely to change.
Talking about our university in terms of the experiences we have, rather than looking at generalised rankings is an important step in countering some of its problems, as well as identifying what is good.