What the Guardian University Rankings Won’t Tell You

University rankings remind me of the Daily Mail. We all know we shouldn’t take them seriously but we also want to know what they’re saying.

So the Guardian’s “University Guide” for 2014 has been released, comprised of a variety of metrics comprising that elusive “Guardian Score.”

I’m currently a graduand of Sheffield’s Politics department, so I’m using Sheffield in the Guardian’s Politics league table as my example. It currently ranks 21st out of 77 institution and 13th out of the Russell Group. Not dreadful, but it’s not exactly something the Politics department want to be shouting about.

Yet ranking institutions in terms of their “Guardian” hides some really interesting stats and I guess, more “marketable” stats:

  • It’s second in the Russell Group (to Cambridge) for “course satisfaction” and “teaching satisfaction” (95%)
  • First in the Russell Group for “feedback satisfaction” (77%)

(I use the Russell Group as a proxy measure for prestige, whether I should or not is obviously debate-able).

Sheffield admittedly ranks poor in some areas, one of them being student:staff ratio, which is 23.1:1. Only Leeds University has a higher ratio in the Russell Group.

But, despite this, Sheffield is actually very good at student:staff interaction. In my final year, I wasn’t once taught by a PhD student (a.k.a GTA). The amount of interaction with professors and lecturers you get in your final year is brilliant, and it’s a key selling point of Sheffield.

Sure, it’s not the Oxbridge tutorial system but you won’t find this kind of interaction at the London School of Economics, who have the lowest student:staff ratio (10.7:1). In other words, having a lower student:staff ratio doesn’t mean that you’re more likely to be able to spend time with your academics.

There’s a similar problem with the “spend per student” metric, where Sheffield gets a pretty poor 4/10. But what does this actually mean? Will you actually get more resources at your disposal, or is it actually paying a top-of-the-range academic that doesn’t interact with undergraduate students? It’s not obvious from the statistic.

I’m not saying rankings aren’t useful. Graduate job statistics are always worth considering, especially given how high the fees are (and Sheffield isn’t exactly stellar in this regard). But are the graduates getting jobs you’re interested in? You have to dig deeper than the rankings to find this stuff out.

Is it Worth Doing a Postgraduate Degree?

Now that I’m in my final year of my undergraduate degree, one of the questions I’ve had to ask myself is whether I want to apply for a Masters.

I’ve always thought that one of the reasons that postgraduate study is so attractive to final years is because we have been on what I like to describe as an ‘educational conveyer belt’.

For the last seventeen years, we have been on this conveyer belt of education. We’ve had the opportunity to drop off at 16 and 18, but we’ve chosen to stay on. Sure, it doesn’t necessarily stop you from having a part-time/summer job but education has been somewhat of a paramount structure for the overwhelming majority of our lives.

The idea of ‘falling off’ that conveyor belt can seem pretty scary, particularly for those that have very little experience of the 9 to 5 working world. And yet, the fact that the benefits of postgraduate are generally less clear-cut compared to A-Levels/undergraduate study, as well as the costs and lack of funding opportunities, it can be a terribly risky investment.

I have thought long and hard about whether postgraduate study would benefit me and, given my personal circumstances, I would prefer to jump straight into a job if I can. However, I thought I would share what I consider to be the key questions that anyone considering postgraduate study should ask themselves:

Is it going to enhance your career prospects?

Not all vocations require a postgraduate degree, and some recruiters may in fact see you as ‘overqualified.’ Some companies may see it as a bonus and others will treat you the same as a candidate with just an undergraduate degree. This will vary between career paths and between companies.

In terms of trying to find out the benefits of postgraduate study, it may be useful to search for the LinkedIn profiles of those with the degree you’re thinking about studying. The scope is limited and it’s probably skewed towards those who are in a decent job, but it’s a start to see what kind of positions that the degree can set you up for.Similarly, you could also use LinkedIn to find those in roles which you are interested in order to look at their education background.

It may also be worth finding job advertisements for positions of interest and considering if the skills/knowledge you would gain in postgraduate study would allow you to better match the person specification for these roles. After all, general skills like teamworking and independent research are already ticked off by the time you’ve completed your undergraduate, so the emphasis can be on more practical skills or in-depth knowledge of a subject area.

Have you looked into part-time/distance learning?

Just because you’re not on campus doesn’t mean you should ever stop learning. Part-time or distance learning courses can be a great way to supplement your education whilst you’re earning. Postgraduate qualifications range from Certificates (PGCert), Diplomas (PGDip) and Masters degrees (MA/MSc). Don’t think you’re restricted to universities either, Chartered Institutes such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) also offer their own qualifications that are widely recognised by employers.

Plus, there are plenty of free courses if you just want to brush up your education in your spare time. For a taste of what’s out there, have a look at Coursera, iTunes U and Lifehacker U

Would it be more beneficial to revisit it in future?

By thinking of the educational conveyor belt, you can see how there may be a pressure to sign up for a postgraduate degree immediately after finishing your undergraduate. Yet, even if you have a desire to do postgraduate study, it may be more beneficial to revisit this plan several years down the line.

Firstly, you may benefit from being in a better position both financially and experience-wise, which can make postgraduate study less of a gamble. Also, for some degrees having relevant professional experience is even beneficial in the application process and it will allow you to apply skills gained from employment to your studies.

An employer put it to me once “universities are always going to take your money.” In short, opportunities for postgraduate study are always going to be there. Given the current economic climate, graduate job opportunities tend to be harder to come by.

You know it’s not an extension of your undergrad, right?

Going back again to the education conveyor belt, it’s very easy to think that a postgraduate degree would just be more of the same. As fun as your student years are, the reality is that postgraduate study isn’t going to be another chance of being a fresher as the workload is likely to be more intense.

Unless you plan on doing a PhD after, you’re only delaying the inevitable ending of the education conveyer belt and you may in fact be limiting your opportunities in the process.

In summary, postgraduate study isn’t for everyone. If you’re unsure, scope out those in the jobs you want, consider non-campus based options and remember get advice from a variety of sources (academics, careers services and postgraduates are generally good places to start). If you’re still on the fence, you may find taking some time out can actually benefit your experience, so don’t feel pressured to sign up for a course right away.

Why Unlimited Recruitment of AAB+ Students May Be Damaging

Following the announcement of the Higher Education White Paper, I couldn’t make my mind up about the proposals. It didn’t get the scrutiny it deserved after the announcement as it was overshadowed by the news of the tuition fee rises. As such, it’s taken until now to really be able to see the effects of it and therefore make a judgement on the policy.

For those that don’t know, universities traditionally had strict quotas of UK/EU students it could take and there were fines for those that significantly overrecruited. Under the new system, students with AAB+ (or over 36 points in the IB) will be excluded from this quota. In theory then, universities could recruit as many of these students as it likes. This threshold is set to be lowered to ABB next year.

Now I’ve seen the policy in action, I can see nothing but negative consequences on a number of factors:

Potential “overrecruitment”

Although technically you can’t overrecruit AAB+ students in an official sense, the government policy now essentially encourages recruiting as many of these students as physically possible.

It makes sense from the outside, given that the expenses of the majority of courses (excluding many of the medicinal related ones) are sunk costs. In other words, once the initial investment has been made on, for example, library materials, teaching staff etc. adding one extra student to the cohort makes little difference financially. In most cases, it would be economically beneficial to accept their £9k payment and let them on board.

However, it would be a grave mistake to view this issue through a purely economic prism. If too much emphasis is put on the financial incentive, we will see a serious decline in quality of experience for these students.

I’m talking big class sizes (which I would argue are often too big already, as one class I had recently didn’t even have enough chairs and desks for all of us), and a squeeze on accommodation places.

I don’t know if universities are attempting to over recruit beyond capacity, but it does seem suspicious that the majority of courses from the mid-tier Russell Groups (York, Bristol, Sheffield etc.) are in clearing, when usually only a handful of courses are available.

Lowering Entry Requirements

In some cases, the clearing grade requirements are actually lower than the prospective requirement. For example, Sheffield University are accepting students for their Law course with AAB, versus the published offer of AAA.

Also, all A-levels weren’t created equal and from face value, they are treated as such. Although it’s difficult to make this case without sounding elitist, is a candidate with AAB in known ‘softer’ subjects like General Studies, Critical Thinking and Home Economics really more suitable for university study than a student that got BBB in Maths, Chemistry and English Literature for example?

Too Much Choice in So Little Time

Those that are lucky enough to get AAB now have a huge range of options as to where to go. As alluded to before, these students may even be able to now get into courses which have had their grades lowered compared to the prospectus.

The problem is, choosing which university to go to is not something any student should make in a space of a couple of weeks – especially where there’s pressure to get it done sooner rather than later as accommodation spaces fill up.

It gives a prospective student limited time to look into things like what bursaries the university offers, course content and of course, the actual campus and department they would be studying in.

This could potentially lead to some late applicants students who didn’t do their research dropping out, accruing some extra student debt in the process. Time will tell if this ends up being the case.

Harms Social Mobility

The fact is, the majority of those from well-achieving schools, particularly those from private school, will get these grades or exceed them. Yet, the majority of those educated in the state sector (minus the grammar schools) won’t. It’s simply not a level playing field.

Another factor is the fact that only A-level and International Bacc students qualify, so those with “equivalent” scores in BTECs will miss out. This clarification was not made until very late on in the day, and this qualification is far more likely to be taken by those in state education.

It also serves to discourage mature students, who are more likely to be doing an Access to HE diploma as opposed to more traditional qualifications.