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.

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