Still a role for national university rankings

International university rankings published by the Academic Ranking of World Universities, QS and Times Higher Education dominate media attention and academic discussion to a far greater extent now than a decade ago.

A consequence is the tendency to overlook national league tables such as the pioneering US News and World Report in the United States and, in the United Kingdom, those published by newspapers such as the Guardian and The Times-Sunday Times, and by TheCompleteUniversityGuide, which opens the UK league table season with its publication on 12 May.

The international rankings resonate with university leaders and politicians because they offer a measuring device for the health of national higher education systems and the effectiveness of international competition between the world’s leading universities.

They also have a value to the increasing number of globally mobile students and academics who look beyond their national boundaries. But, certainly in the developed world, such students will be a minority compared with would-be students who look closer to home for higher education.

It is easy to forget that rankings were originally aimed at potential students in a world in which comparisons between universities were regarded as invidious by academics and administrators.

That that attitude is now largely a feature of the past is a positive reflection on the professionalism with which the publishers of league tables – domestic and international – have gone about their work.

Most interest below the top 10

Universities in the UK may not admit it but there is considerable interest in the date when TheCompleteUniversityGuide and the other league tables are published.

This interest tends to be concentrated in the levels below the UK Top Ten. It is a virtue of the league tables’ methodologies that there is very little movement at all in the leading 10 institutions. They remain more or less the same year on year, perhaps with a minor shuffling of places, but with no great shocks.

It is lower down the rankings that vice-chancellors, recruitment and media staff get twitchy. It is well known that a number of universities have employed consultants specifically to improve their performance.

Given that – unlike the QS and THE international rankings – the UK’s national league tables make use of officially-sourced and audited data, the room for manoeuvre is limited, but it presumably makes sense for institutions to optimise the statistical returns they are required to make, often as a condition of public funding.

This year, for example, it emerged that the body that funds universities in England, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, had changed the rules for the classification of staff. Some staff that had previously been classified as technical could be reassigned as academic staff.

This has clearly been exploited by a number of universities who have, as a result, been able to improve their student-to-staff ratios, one of the key indicators used by the UK league tables. These institutions have leapt up the guide’s rankings compared with last year and it will be interesting to observe the impact on the other two league tables later in the year.

Using official data

Neither optimising statistical returns to the funding bodies nor taking advantage of a change in the rules is open to criticism, although others have criticised the impact of league tables on institutional policy, but that is in essence the higher education system’s problem.

Given that league tables set out to assist young people (and their parents) in making one of the most expensive decisions of their lives, they have to use the data that is provided to them.

It is critical that rankings are seen to be credible, accurate and fair. This is even more crucial in the light of their potential effect on decision-making by incoming international students, who have less exposure to the realities of the UK’s diverse higher education system.

At its core, TheCompleteUniversityGuide has official data on UK university performance across a range of indicators, from the Student Satisfaction Survey to resourcing and other issues.

This data is collected from official sources and is scrupulously verified with universities to ensure the greatest accuracy. In addition, the methodology and process has been thoroughly discussed with representatives of the sector.

In addition to the main table it publishes the leading universities across 67 subjects offered in the UK, so users can dig beyond top-level institutional comparisons.

The guide additionally provides users with a range of information on fees, sport and recreation, safety and security, graduate prospects, and bursaries and scholarships. Complementary to the institutional rankings and subject tables, much of this information is especially collected and is unique.

A national guide is also of relevance to incoming international students. They too are able to dig down to subject level, perhaps discovering opportunities that are not obvious from international rankings that list just the leading institutions.

The guide has content aimed directly at globally-mobile students, and elsewhere on the site there are university profiles and information on university cities which will aid incoming students.

So, although they don’t hit the headlines, national league tables play a valuable role, alongside other sources of information, for young people seeking to make the best possible decision about their future.

* Dr Bernard Kingston is principal author of TheCompleteUniversityGuide.co.uk. Its 2015 ranking is published on the Guide’s website on 12 May.