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Students (and their parents) can get a bit dazzled by university rankings. We explore how you can help your students to navigate them wisely.
In an increasingly data-driven world, rankings often feel all-encompassing, whether we’re shopping for a new smartphone, or comparing holiday destinations (yes, believe it, we’ll be going on holiday again one day soon!).
For your students who are in the early stages of exploring their university options, university league tables and rankings can loom especially large.
Like the many counsellors and career advisers we work with every day, you might be wondering how you can pivot the conversations away from rankings.
Tricky, isn’t it?
And it’s not just students who might need convincing.
Parents are, understandably, often keen advocates for their son or daughter to study at a university or college because of its perceived prestige. For these parents, the quality of their child’s education is directly tied to where a particular institution sits on a league table.
If you’ve read any of our previous resources, you’ll know that we’ve always believed that a student’s research needs to be a more holistic process.
Here’s the thing though. University league tables and rankings do have their uses.
For example, if it weren’t for university rankings, students would lose a valuable entry point into the exciting and varied world of higher education.
You might say that, when it comes to researching and discovering their next steps in life, tables and rankings are the beginning of wisdom, but not the end.
Or, to put it another way, rankings can be a valuable tool in the university research process. But they can’t be the sole factor in a student’s final decision making.
That’s why we’ve decided to tackle league tables and rankings in this article. We’ll give you a refresher on how they work, how they’re compiled and how your students should (and shouldn’t) use them.
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University league tables & rankings explained
Put simply, league tables and rankings essentially distil huge amounts of data about numerous higher education into a neat list. The idea behind this is simple: give students, parents and counsellors the ability to quickly compare and rank universities and colleges.
What’s not to love about that?
You may have already encountered some of the different league tables out there. Some are very general, for example the QS World University Rankings. Other league tables serve a much more specific purpose, for example ‘Top Universities in Germany to Study Engineering.’
Before we discuss the usefulness of league tables in more detail, it’s worth briefly exploring how they are compiled.
How do university league tables calculate rankings?
You may have already noticed that rankings tend to vary from one league table to the next.
Many league tables rely on similar criteria – but even if they use the same ones, they may place a different emphasis on these metrics. In league table lingo, this is often called ‘weighting’.
Weighting is why you’ll find slightly different rankings even amongst lists claiming to do the exact same thing (e.g. THE World and US News Global).
At most universities, the first main objective is doing research, which rankings measure by calculating ‘research output’. Research output measures original research and the noise that gets made about it: that’s things like original findings, publications, citations, and conferences.
Universities’ second main objective is, you guessed it, educating students! This encompasses everything from teaching you hard facts to encouraging you to learn the soft skills required in your future workplace, like networking, organization, and self-reflection.
Unfortunately, research output isn’t always a reliable indicator of the overall undergraduate experience. For instance, it’s not unheard of for some professors to be brilliant researchers but lacklustre teachers – or vice versa!
In fact, in some universities, students may not get much contact with famous faculty members at all.
That’s why rankings often take things like academic performance and graduate employment prospects into account.
But this is where it starts to get a little tricky to glean holistic information from league tables.
Whereas measuring how many books a professor has penned or how many patents a researcher has filed is fairly straightforward, it’s much harder for rankings to predict the overall quality of a student’s overall university experience. After all, it’s about so much more than just the academics!
How can students use rankings to research universities?
As we discussed earlier, league tables and their rankings do have some uses for students who are starting out with their university research. Let’s quickly look at a few.
Helping students to get their bearings
While we wouldn’t suggest that students just apply to the first ten universities they see on a league table, rankings can still provide a bit of structure for students who might be starting with a totally blank state.
For instance, while Kings’ College London might be a top-ranked university that isn’t the right fit for everyone, a student who came across KCL on a league table might discover London as a study destination they’d not considered before.
And who knows? It could lead down a path of the student researching and applying to another, more suitable university in London.
Enabling students to explore subject specialisms
The more a league table has a specific focus, the more useful it will be for students to search for and discover the universities and courses that are right for them.
Take subject specialisms as an example.
While a general QS ranking of the top-ranked universities worldwide may not be particularly helpful, a league table that ranks the best universities for engineering in Germany would be super useful for a student who knew they were interested in that subject and that country.
Exploring new modes of learning
With more universities offering remote learning or opening branch campuses around the world, league tables are also a useful way for students to explore new alternative modes of learning they may not have considered before.
Assessing how competitive the application process will be
At the end of the day, league tables are often a barometer of how competitive a university’s application process will be. Generally speaking, the higher up a league table a university is ranked, the harder it will be to apply!
League tables can often help students to set expectations of how feasible it will be to gain entry to a certain institution.
A university might look prestigious if it sits atop a league table, but it’s ultimately your job to have an honest and thoughtful discussion about whether a student has the academic requirements to be successful in their application.
For example, the BridgeU platform helps students to gain a quick and easy overview of those universities that are a match for their personal and academic profile versus those universities that may be a little out of reach.
Here’s the problem though. As much as they’re only designed to be a first step in the research process, some students (and/or their parents) will still place a lot of emphasis on a university’s ranking in a league table.
How to move the conversation beyond university league tables
At the end of the day, encouraging students to look past rankings and league tables can help them to use their critical and analytical skills when exploring higher education options.
But as we’ve already mentioned, moving students past league tables and rankings isn’t always easy. So how can you ensure that your students are looking at prospective universities and colleges in a bit more of a rounded way?
Highlight the relationship between rankings and reputation
The truth is, the relationship between rankings and reputation can be a bit of a chicken and egg question.
So what came first – the ranking or the reputation?
While we’re not suggesting that you get too philosophical with your students, it’s worth pointing out to them that universities will often use their rankings as part of their branding.
This makes total sense – after all, who wouldn’t want to be rated ‘best’ for physics or hold the top rating for student experience?
What’s more, students’ awareness of certain universities or colleges might stretch beyond rankings. Chances are, either you or your students have seen or heard a few of these places mentioned on social media feeds, other websites or even film and television!
But this level of interest and awareness also allows top-ranked universities to set the competitive academic requirements they tend to be known for.
In turn, this reinforces their prestigious allure.
Stress that numbers can be misleading
It’s true that a degree from a top-ranked university is unlikely to harm a student’s employment prospects. That being said, there are certain gaps in the maths you should know about.
The first thing to note is that rankings are all based on a set of strict criteria. Whilst this ensures that the metrics used are consistent – and that each university is evaluated fairly – it does mean that some universities and colleges don’t get included in the rankings at all.
Believe it or not, some of the programmes that get left out are both excellent and very well regarded: they’re usually simply too small, too specialized, or too new to make the cut.
Second, as we’ve already discussed, league tables can be informative when your students are still getting their bearings – but we wouldn’t necessarily recommend relying on rankings if a student is trying to decide between just a handful of institutions.
Because when students are at that crucial stage of narrowing down their options, there are so many more important factors at play. Things like:
- Is the course or choice of potential majors appealing, and something the student wants to study?
- Is the location and host country the right fit?
- Is the course/university affordable?
Let’s say one of your students has decided to apply to a prestigious science and engineering institute in the USA. You have every confidence they’re going to write a great admissions essay and they have the academic requirements to be a great fit.
But this student is also considering a small, less-well known university in Germany. The class sizes sound perfect, they’d have access to amazing internship opportunities and the student even follows one of his/her prospective lecturers on social media! Unfortunately, this university barely made the Top 500 this year.
Now, at first, that sounds like a huge difference. But remember that there are over 25000 universities in the world.
So if, when all is said and done, a student who is building their shortlist is still worried about rankings, it’s worth reminding them that anything in the top 500 is still in the global top 2%!
On the rare occasion that a university plummets overnight from a spot in the top 50 into, say, the top 200, then that sudden drop might warrant a closer look.
Apart from that? It’s wise to treat those numbers like ballpark figures, not gospel truth.
Talk to students about factors other than rankings
Rankings can be a useful starting point for thinking about the academic experience at university. But neither you nor your students should ever forget that a truly memorable higher education is very much rooted in personal experience.
Other important things to consider include scholarship opportunities, tuition and living costs, campus diversity, the question of whether to stay close to family, part-time or online learning opportunities, and practical training opportunities (like access to specific internships).
For example, let’s say one of your students tells you they want to become a lawyer to fight against racial inequalities. Choosing a university with an ethnically diverse staff and student profile might be just as important as how it ranks for research output.
So make sure that your students aren’t just Googling those prestigious institutions at the top of a league table. Ultimately, university research can, and should, be a journey of discovery.
We’ve all listened to music based on where it sits in the charts. But we’ve probably also been recommended, or discovered alternative gems at some time or another.
It’s worth reminding your students and their parents that it’s the same story for higher education institutions.
So encourage your students to do a little digging outside of the Global Top 500. Who knows? They might stumble across the perfect course or major at a provider they’ve never heard of. And this could open a door to better employment prospects and, hopefully, a more meaningful student experience.
Don’t forget, if you’re interested in learning more about how BridgeU can help your students discover a broader range of best-fit universities (for free), you can book a demo of the platform below. We’re always keen to hear from you!
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