Beware University tables

It’s that time of year when A level students are turning their minds to the process of applying for university. Many will have already been to open days and be considering courses, accommodation, and fees, and Oxford is full of schools on access trips, even before the official open days next week. It’s also when university league tables are released and debated, one such table being the Guardian University Guide 2014.

However, although these tables have the potential to be very helpful to undergraduates, they can also be highly misleading. I don’t know whether any applicants will read this, but here are a few simple reasons why university tables shouldn’t be taken at face value. Of course, some of them may be obvious, but then again, university applicants have rather a lot of information thrown at them from various different sources, and this is a brief attempt to shine a critical light on some of it.

  • Why is it necessary, and how is it useful, to add together data from completely different subjects and departments into a set of information about whole universities? The majority of measures used in the Guardian table, for instance, seem to me to have little value at a university-wide level, except as a very broad indicator of quality.
  • In subjects like music these tables end up comparing apples to oranges. Choosing between studying music at the Royal Academy of Music and Oxford University is not really a matter of quality, but of experience, skills, knowledge, and teaching, but these tables do not distinguish between courses at music colleges and universities, which offer completely different degrees.
  • The student to staff ratio is potentially misleading. Following on from the collation of subjects, it is quite beyond me why comparing the number of students to each staff member across entire universities is valuable. This statistic says nothing about the type of teaching on offer, nor its quality. Certainly in the case of music at Oxford, the advertised ratio is 17.6, but this is completely at odds with the structure of the course. Lectures can contain anywhere from 5 to 200 people, (rare) seminars 5 to 15, and tutorials, where the vast majority of teaching happens, about 1 to 6 students. I think I can comfortably say I received over 130 hours of tutorial teaching in my time at Oxford, never with more than 4 undergraduates to one tutor, and most often with 2. That is exceptional, and is clearly not reflected in the student:staff score (and neither is the combination of performance tuition and lectures at somewhere like Guildhall).
  • Crucially, university tables do not provide any specific information about bursaries, financial support, or general student support and welfare. Whatever side you take on the issue of tuition fees (I personally believe that living costs are actually a more important barrier to access) there is no doubting that a degree can potentially cost far more now than it did 30 or 40 years ago. Therefore the level of financial support a university offers can be an important factor, as is the level of welfare provision across the board. I personally believe this is an area in which Oxford excels: the small communities in individual colleges mean there is an extremely high level of support, and Oxford’s bursaries are among the most generous (if not the best full stop), especially when specific college grants are accounted for (have a look at the new Moritz-Herman scholarships). I reckon that my college, Hertford, is probably one of the best places for undergraduate support in the UK: in the last few years they have introduced a bursary scheme in which any undergraduate with a family income of less than £50,695 receives a flat £1,000 bursary for living costs per year, on top of what the central university offers.
  • I am happy to be corrected on this, but I don’t really see how a ‘value added’ score really tells us very much about the quality of a university or its courses. This is meant to ‘compare students’ individual degree results with their entry qualifications, to show how effective the teaching is’ but what a degree teaches you can’t just be expressed by comparing degree results against A levels. Time management, organisation, a broader grasp of culture, reading and note-taking ability, networking and debating skills, and more are measured to some extent in a degree result, but can’t be wholly expressed by it.
  • Similarly, I don’t think student feedback should be reduced down to a score out of 100. Also, student feedback needs to be evaluated against expectations, which can’t be illustrated by a table: you would clearly expect a better experience and education from the university at the top of the list for a particular subject than the one at the bottom, which would affect your feedback. As 99% of students only experience taking an undergraduate degree at one university, what they thought was bad teaching or feedback on work at their university might be exceptional at another one, or vice versa. There are a lot of things that are fantastic about Hertford and the Oxford Music Faculty, and some things that need improvement, and while I don’t know what score I’d give my experience if you come to the open days then I can tell you what I think in detail.

If you are a prospective student then do use university tables as a way of gaining information, but please don’t let them be a major factor in your decision. They are too reductive to be a substitute for considering in detail what each university offers, can be misleading, and miss out some of the most important information altogether. I’m not really sure there’s any substitute for going to open days and talking to current students to find out about universities and courses.

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