Earlier this week, the Guardian in the UK released its updated university rankings, just the latest of myriad national and international exercises in defining the “best” university. At a time when deciding to go to university is fraught with unkowns, Simon Linacre argues that critical thinking skills are more important than ever.
I’ll admit it, I love it when my own university tops any kind of ranking. The fact that I was there 25 years ago and the subjects and academics taught there are unrecognisable, is of no consequence. That the department I graduated from is the BEST in the country is something I have to tell my wife and colleagues about, despite the arched eyebrows and disdain I can feel from several thousand miles away.
What does this mean? Well, aside from the fact that I must be a walking target for alumni fundraisers, it shows that my critical faculties, if not entirely absent, are certainly being overridden by shameless pride in something I have no right to be proud about. But like your favourite football team, you can’t help pulling for them through thick and thin – when they suck you say “we’re awful!”, and when they do well you say “we’re top!”.
However, deciding which university to go to in a year or two is not the same as choosing a football team to support. You should use every critical faculty you have and hone it until it is razor-sharp before you even think of filling in a form or visiting a campus. And that means you should learn to read a university ranking like you would read a balance sheet before investing in a company, or reviewing a journal before submitting an article. I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong in any ranking as it can provide extremely useful data on which to base a decision. But you need to know where the data came from and how it relates to the investment you are making in your future life and career. This is why we always recommend users of Cabells’ Journalytics database use other relevant data points for their individual circumstances.
This week, the Guardian published its UK university rankings for 2021, with Oxford, St Andrews and Cambridge leading the way overall (full disclosure: I attended St Andrews). Each broad subject is then broken down into separate rankings with the promise that, “unlike other league tables, the Guardian rankings are designed with students in mind.” What, other university rankings do NOT have students in mind? Straight away, the amount of spin adopted here should tell you that (a) you should be careful of other hyperbolae, and (b) you should look at other league tables to see why the Guardian would say this.
And there are plenty of tables to choose from – both nationally and internationally there are dozens of such rankings, all seeking to advise students on which university to choose. Why? Because of the 48 pages of the university guide, six are adverts. Organisations publish rankings guides to sell advertising and cement their reputation as education experts, further enhancing their opportunities to sell education-related advertising in the future. Knowing why there is spin and why these guides exist in the first place should help students understand what information is in front of them and ensure a better decision-making process.
But students should also dig deep into the data. In the “Business, management and marketing” subject ranking, readers are told that, “most universities will boast of having good links with business,” that “group work is a key part of many courses” and “there will also be a practical element to assessment.” But none of these points are addressed in the rankings, which include data on criteria such as course and teaching satisfaction, spend per student and “career after 15 months.” All of this information is relevant but only some has data to back it up.
Sitting with my 12-year-old at breakfast, he looked at the page on architecture (which he has wanted to do since the age of about seven), and decided he should go to Cambridge, UCL or Bath as the top three for that subject. None of those would be a bad choice, but neither would they be an informed one.