Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. Karolina Kasparova explores the value of university rankings in the increasingly commodified world of education.
My department – English Language and Literature – was “ranked 4th in the country in the recent QS World University Rankings (2018) and 14th in the world,” as I found out in the graduate handbook. Reading that felt strangely nice, especially for someone who recently graduated from an Eastern European university which currently occupies a position in the obscure 101 – 150th place grouping in the world for the same subject. With UCL’s English department holding such a respectable placing, print screening the handbook from my phone and sending it to my mum would encourage her to add this information to the unofficial “whose kids are doing the best” contest which is running amongst her and her colleagues at work.
When looking at the whole university, the results were much more inconsistent. The 2019 QS World University Rankings rank UCL 4th in the country, but if you look at other more specific rankings, such as “Student Experience Survey 2018: best UK universities for academic experience”, you will scroll down for a surprisingly long time. Current students in the UK awarded UCL number 79. Our university is also “silver” according to the Teaching Excellence Framework, behind many other institutions which occupy much worse positions in the QS rankings.
Why this absurd quasi-mathematical search? After all, it is the universally acknowledged truth that rankings attach varying importance to different factors (such as academic reputation, employability or student satisfaction) and use diverse criteria to assess the results. Furthermore, everyone is aware of the fact that rankings cannot encompass the whole study experience.
There is still one catch: even though the rankings websites themselves draw attention to these problems, their numbers are still often paraded without stating the broader context. Which ranking will the institution mention on their website- the one that its academics consider most appropriate in terms of the methods of evaluation, or the one which gives the institution the highest number? We do not have to second guess.
Another problem is that even if we do state the criteria, there is an inherent flaw which prevents us from getting the true corresponding answer to questions such as “which university has the highest quality of teaching”. As Andre Spicer wrote in 2017, “rankings are more about perception than the actual performance”. Can we really be sure that the experts evaluating the “academic reputation”, for example, rely solely on their actual knowledge of the research being done at the particular institution, and not at all on their deep-rooted and proven-by-experience assumptions? Who would have time to follow all this research thoroughly every single year?
Perception is not a needless attribute – a good one attracts employees, which means that certain students might prefer to attend an institution with a better reputation rather than for its actual teaching quality. Is this scenario not a little bit sad though, especially if we recall the old-fashioned ideals about education as having inherent value in itself?
This also means that universities, in their struggle to have the best students, spend a lot of time focusing on enhancing the perception, instead of focusing solely on improving the actual performance. And we can easily imagine that there are resources going into that, rather than improving the experience and teaching for those students currently at the university. A perfect example of that is the use of pre-testing when gathering data for the National Student Survey – a manipulative tactic used by some institutions to prevent the complaints from affecting the official results.
I do not want to denounce rankings, as they have proven useful to me a few times. However, a word of caution: use them wisely by questioning them and pay attention if your potential institution manipulates ranking data to exaggerate their real value. We live in an age which is obsessed with quantifying the unquantifiable, while simplified quantification of nearly everything – including education – has turned into a huge business in itself. Such data must be taken with scepticism.