Can rankings really help students choose their university?

by Tim Rogers

We live in very interesting times. For decades, the topic of higher education, university admissions, tuition fees and graduate employment featured, if at all, buried deep in the pages of our national newspapers. In recent months, however, since the release of the Browne Report and the UK Government’s White Paper on higher education, universities are front-page news, almost on a daily basis. New demands from students, the Government and employers to make the university experience more relevant to the contemporary labour market have transformed the higher education landscape in the UK and discussions on social mobility, transferable skills and the funding of education are now commonplace.

Interesting times may also dictate changing times for UK and European students aiming to enter university in 2012 and beyond. The implementation of what might be called “market rate” tuition fees calls into question for the first time whether universities and their individual undergraduate degree programs represent value for money equally. With higher rates of student debt facing most students in the UK in the future, the question “what do I get for my money?” arises in a way students have never had to face before. The logical response to such a situation is the provision of more detailed and perhaps greater volumes of relevant advisory information.

The role of rankings, in this context, may prove much more powerful. Related to the UK Government’s own revised approach to higher education, the collection of independent and objective data on the performance of universities across a range of measures, such as entry standards, student satisfaction, tuition fees and graduate employment rates, is likely to be critical for all those concerned with making the right choice on where to study. To quote the White Paper itself, “We will radically improve and expand the information available to prospective students, making available much more information about individual courses at individual institutions and graduate employment prospects.”

The availability of rankings for UK, EU and international students to help support them choosing a university program is nothing new. A range of publications, including many national newspapers, magazines and now websites, have developed rankings or league tables to help support better student choice for over a decade. Ben Sowter, Head of the QS Intelligence Unit, the power behind the QS World University Rankings®, sees the use of rankings by prospective students as only now becoming more and more important: “With higher tuition fees in place in the UK, students and their parents are bound to look for more detailed information that compares programs, universities and even graduates of specific institutions directly. Information that is based on solid data will help all those involved in choosing where to study to make much better and more informed choices.”

Phil Moss, an education and admissions consultant specializing in counselling UK students to gain access to university, believes that the advent of fees will change a number of behaviours but sounds a note of caution on the use of university rankings and league tables, “Any university ranking offers additional information and is likely to help students and their parents make better decisions about where to study, but the need to balance them with other, more human factors will continue to be important. Advice from alumni or current students can be as valuable in providing a genuine insight into the experience or quality of a particularly degree program and add an element that rankings can never convey – the actual emotion of a university experience.”

While rankings are perhaps not the answer for all issues related to university or program choice, the provision of a set of measures that contribute to an understanding of the relative quality of an institution is very valuable. Rankings, such as those offered by QS, have the added advantage of offering a detailed insight into the relative strengths of universities in the UK and further afield at the subject level. Such attempts at providing information at this micro-level can only support prospective students in making the best decision possible for their university choice and their future careers. For many, in the changed reality of tuition fees and increasing demand for university undergraduate places, the availability of more and more information can only be a good thing.

The implementation of full-cost student tuition fees will change the UK university environment forever – and for many it’s already started to. Not only will students and their parents seek much greater reassurances that the university experience and the likely qualification gained will provide value for money, but that a genuine return on the greater investment made will be assured, if not quite guaranteed. University rankings and external assessments can only add a very valuable dimension to the decision-making process for all those concerned, as more and more students assess whether their university choice is the best possible one for them.

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