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.

Are £9,000 Fees Really Putting People Off Of University?

Today on Twitter a lot of statistics were being about the decline in the number of UCAS applications. As it’s the first year that UK/EU undergraduate students will have to pay up to £9,000 a year on tuition fees for their university education (for the majority will be paid for through a Student Loan), any decline in applications is going to be viewed as “government policy discouraging people from applying to university.”

So low and behold:

“UCAS: Total applicant numbers at this stage of the cycle are 7.4% lower than at the same point in 2011.”

Cue general anger towards the government’s policy…

After reading the rather exceptional ‘The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through a World of Numbers‘ I’ve become much more critical of statistics used by the media, and how any correlation may not be as significant as it seems. Statistics on higher education are no exception.

I submitted my UCAS in October 2009 when university fees were still capped at around £3,000. However, Sixth Formers knew an election would be taking place in May 2010 and that whatever party won, government spending would be slashed. It was generally predicted that between May and September 2010, tuition fees would increase.  Thus, I was told constantly by teachers that you had to apply in this cycle of UCAS. Even if you were planning to take a gap year, don’t wait until next year as the fees are likely to go up – apply as a now for a deferred place. And definitely don’t miss the UCAS deadline. 

Yet, my teachers were wrong about tuition fee rises, but only that they weren’t go to increase for applicants in the 2010/2011 UCAS cycle. Yet, with the Browne Review in progress at the time it became every more likely that the fees would be increasing for the 2011/2012 cycle. So I guess the message from teacher would’ve been similar to these applicants as they were for me: apply this year or regret it later.

Furthermore, a couple have pointed out that although the number of 18-year-olds applying to university had declined, the number of 18-year-olds had declined too. This led the Chief Executive of UCAS to conclude “The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people … shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK.” That could easily account those with gap year plans who chose to apply for a deferred place last year applying with their A-level grades this year.

So are £9,000 fees putting people off of university? I’m genuinely not sure, and at this stage I don’t think anybody can be. However, I’ve recently started employment as a Student Ambassador at the University of Sheffield, where I will be able to directly ask young people this (and hopefully convince them not to be!).