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Inform > Headmaster's Blog > September 2016 > A Closer Look at University League Tables

A Closer Look at University League Tables

25/09/2016
The news that Oxford University has become the first UK university to top the Times Higher Education world university rankings in the 12 year history of their particular league table is, on the surface, good news for Oxford and UK PLC. Cal Tech has been knocked off the top sport but they still podium alongside Stanford, with Cambridge again not managing to medal this year.

The main indicators underlying the methodology of the ranking are teaching, research, citations and international outlook and are worth looking at in more detail. Two out of those four indicators probably aren't going to interest the indebted undergraduates that are the main income source for all universities. 'Research' is what you do as a postgraduate. Most graduates don't become postgraduates because the prospect of more years, or even a lifetime, in the library or lab, doesn't appeal unless the prospect of a job in the 'real world' is even less attractive. But the volume, relevance and success of the research the universities generate is used to rank their performance more often than other indicators such as quality of teaching, supervision and feedback, or even the amount of time lecturers spend lecturing.

Citations' is really just a measure of how often academics get their work published, which is good for the academics, but again, probably means they're spending less time teaching, marking and supervising, and more time writing and trying to get published. 'International outlook' in this context means drawing in 'international talent' so adding top line academics to the roster from outside the UK. Think of Premier League football teams adding from overseas to their squads and being judged positively on how many players there are who sign up from top European clubs because they want to play in the Premiership. One reason they might do so would be because they get will get paid more, but perhaps for academics they have different motivations.

From Milton Abbey's perspective the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide league table is much more meaningful. The league table is based on performance in nine key indicators including student satisfaction, research quality, graduate job prospects, service and facilities spend, and teaching and academic feedback. Milton Abbey's closest university is Bournemouth University (BU), and this BU has risen to 62nd in the rankings - a top 50 breakthrough beckons next year - but this 20 place rise from last year's table reflects BU's strong graduate employability - including 2016 Visual Effects Oscar and BAFTA winners - and placement opportunities for all honours degree students.

Milton Abbey has a number of partnership opportunities with BU over this forthcoming year to look forward to in animation and film, and also in sport science, and we are very excited about developing further links with our near neighbours. Employability through work placement is central to the BU offer as I discussed with Professor John Fletcher, one of BU's Vice-Chancellors on Friday. And this level of concentration on working life after university is similar to Milton Abbey's '18-24 Business Pathway', run in conjunction with the Milton Abbey Association in the Lower 6th.

Universities that full resource the undergraduate learning experience and facilitate the pathway to work for their graduates will continue to attract more students as word spreads about the quality of the courses and their delivery. The Student Room, a website and chatroom where current and aspiring undergraduates swap experiences and stories about the facilities, lecturers, food and accommodation they are paying for is probably a more accurate measure of student satisfaction than a league table. But for the time being we have to judge on the published results to give our 6th formers the best advice about universities and courses.

The QAA, the QualityAssurance Agency, which is the government body charged with ensuring that universities are delivering successfully the courses they advertise, has also been in the news this year, and there will be a public tendering process from 2017 to run the university inspection system. With so much student money at stake and undergraduates looking for value for money for their £27K tuition fee investment, then the sooner universities are faced with an inspection framework akin to the inspections that OFSTED and the ISI carry out in schools, based around visits, interviews with pupils and parents, and lesson observations alongside analysis of results, the better.