Why University rankings don’t do dubstep…

Education, UCAS

1st September 2018

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How are you going to pick which University to apply to?

There are any number of approaches you could take. Why not grab the battered old copy of the University guide that lurks in the corner of your 6th form common room, rip out the pages and pin them to the wall, and then throw darts until you get five choices?

Or you could perhaps go to that weird old fortune teller who lurks down the dodgy side street (incense smell drifting out of the door…) and get her to tell you what you should do.

You could go where your Dad went. You could go where your friends are going. You could go to the cheapest one. You could go to the nearest one.

Or, you could some do some diligent research on the matter, and find one that’s perfectly right for you…

The only problem is, whilst that last option certainly sounds like the most sensible option, it’s certainly easier said than done.

Rankings Tables

One thing that people often turn to is university rankings – especially those published by the Times Higher Education site (THE). But how do these work? What does it really mean if a uni tops the list? Or falls at 77th? One of the important things that THE lets you know is how they break down their score distribution. What is notable is that only 30% of the awarded mark pertains to ‘Teaching and the Learning Environment’. Within this, 15% is generated from a reputational survey, and 4.5% derives from the student to staff ratio.

Another 30% comes from research volume, and 30% from research influence – so a kind of quantity and quality thing. But that’s a solid 60% of score derived from research – and how much does that actually matter to you? Yes, research marks are indications – only indications though – that there’s probably some good equipment around, lots of lovely books, and quite a few clever people.

But does it mean that the teachers are actually able to engage you and make your subject interesting and dynamic? Does it mean you’ll be comfortable and have emotional support when you need it? Does it mean the vending machines only have fruit bars in, Carling is the only beer on tap in the student union, and you’ll have to walk a million miles every day around the campus? Certainly, university is an academic undertaking, and paying attention to academic details is important – but this will be three years of your life, and the things that are a priority to you – no matter how superficial – are unlikely to be measured properly in a generic online ranking system.

The Complete University Guide (CUG) uses similar metrics, but its distribution of points is weighted different. Indeed, they themselves urge caution; ‘Be aware however, that the league tables do not tell the whole story…or a well-rounded view it is important to also consider other sources of information, for example the university profiles’. The CUG also says that when reviewing tables, it is important to be mindful of ‘bunching’ – in which 20 places might separate university A and university B, but the differences in scores between all 20 universities is as little as 0.2%. As with all data, perspective and interpretation is everything and there are no objective ‘truths’ to be found within it – so be mindful of this when using data sources to frame your decision making.

You might tempted to say ‘ah, but university is an investment in my career’ and so paying close attention to the prestige of the university – and the individual course –  is important in order for your CV to be headed with the most appealing and impressive educational institution for the field.


This is true to a degree (haha, geddit, to a degree…). But prestige is a funny thing, and perceived differently by different people – so again, objective ranking may prove to be a fickle friend.  To use an anecdote to illustrate my point; a friend was offered a place at both Birmingham and Oxford to study computer sciences. He took the Birmingham offer on the basis that (as he understood it) it was the better rated and more prestigious course. But what if he doesn’t end up in computer sciences? What if the person recruiting him is generic HR without specific computer science knowledge, who is unaware of Birmingham’s stellar reputation in the field? Birmingham is a great university, but let’s face it, if you have Oxford at the top of your CV, that CV is going to open all kinds of doors.

Indeed, the Complete University Guide supports this assertion; saying ‘Newer universities often demonstrate strengths in comparison to older, reputable universities. Modest institutions may have centres of specialist excellence, and even famous universities can have mediocre departments’. So the friend in question may well have been right to select Birmingham for its actual credentials, but caution is urged on basing choices purely on the ‘prestige’ you believe comes from going to a list-topping university.

Make your own ranking

So what’s to be done, if the lists don’t really work for you? The simple answer is to make your own. Have a bit of a soul search – a pint down the pub with some honest friends can be really helpful (if you’re lucky enough to be of drinking age already, of course). Be honest when drawing up your criteria for assessment; do try to keep the core and important points orientated around academic metrics, but if you want to award Leeds extra points because they have the best dubstep club in the country, do it. If you want to assign points based on how far away the lecture halls are from your dorms, or even how far away the nearest Tesco Metro and Wetherspoons are, do that too. Take a really personalised approach to finding the right university for you, whilst still benefiting from the ‘objectivity’ (well, kind of) offered by drawing up a vaguely scientific framework for comparison.

As a final note – a common theme throughout all of these blogs is ‘don’t panic’. Making good and informed choices is important, and it’s part of the reason we’re here at Oxbridge Personal Statements; we have access to the expertise and information you need to make the best choice for you. But there’s a risk of your university choice feeling like it will be the end of the world if you get it wrong, and that’s a dangerous way of thinking. University tends to be about what you put into it; the friends you make, the memories you forge, and the effort you put into study. So long as these are in place, there isn’t a ‘wrong’ choice in institution.

So I guess, in the end, you shouldn’t be afraid to let that dubstep club sway your decision…