Number One Doesn't Mean Much
The week before last saw the release of the 2023 instalment of the Guardian’s University Guide. For the first time since the guide’s conception, the University of St Andrews topped the list, ending the reign of the Oxbridge duopoly. Yet for all the usherings of a new ‘Stoxbridge’ era, the results are, if taken at face value, wholly uninformative. Indeed, St Andrews still ranks comparatively poorly on the international stage: the QS World Rankings places us at an uninspiring 96th. These contradictions are symptomatic of a larger problem, namely the fallacious belief that ranking systems can be held to a degree of objectivity.
Such league tables first came into prominence at the turn of the century, reflecting the paradigm shift in global attitudes towards higher education. The UK alone has seen the percentage of over-18’s staying in full time education increase more than threefold in the last forty years. This has resulted in the commercialisation of the university model — degrees today act largely as passports to jobs and social status. The move away from a university being a place for the elite few has driven the demand for data-oriented comparisons between top institutions, and the rankings industry has expanded accordingly. Pitting top universities against each other is no longer just an exercise in curiosity, it is a profitable business model.
For all the hype that surrounds the annual release of these publications, the rankings are, and always have been, remarkably simple. Most league tables pick a set of parameters (student satisfaction, graduate outcomes etc.), couple each one with a weighting, then feed the data into an algorithm to produce a score out of 100. The choice of parameters and their relative importance is, of course, entirely arbitrary. For example, the Guardian’s University Guide does not assign any significance to an institution’s research output, a domain Oxbridge can still claim absolute dominance over.
Simplicity is paramount to the success, and failure, of all of these league tables. Broad, sweeping claims have a particular allure — even if they come at the cost of intellectual credibility. Dumb data makes for good headlines. None pushed the limits of this shallow model as much as The Economist did back in 2017, the year in which the newspaper made its first, and only, attempt at producing a ranking. The publication measured two variables, entry tariffs, and mean salary after graduation, and plotted them against each other on a graph. The result was the University of Portsmouth (which was ranked 67th in this year’s Guardian table) taking the top spot. St Andrews came in dead last.
The picture is decisively bleaker on a global scale. World rankings are handicapped by a lack of internationally comparable data and resultantly tend to focus solely on research metrics — teaching and student satisfaction are unmeasurable afterthoughts. Being a small university, thus with a relatively low research output, St Andrews often sits so low on these lists that it does not even merit a definite position; we are instead reduced to a band of numbers (The Times Higher Education table puts us at “200-250”).
None of this would matter if league tables were once again treated as beauty parades instead of extensions of the scientific method. Today, despite all the failings, the significance of these lists is undeniable. Not only are league tables studied by students and the general public, but also by academics, policy-makers and potential donors. In a bidding war to attract foreign talent, a top rating is worth its weight in gold.
Despite any claims of indifference, universities are acutely aware of where they sit in relation to their rivals, and achievements (however artificial) are still celebrated.. While it can be argued that St Andrews’ consistent presence near the top of the national rankings is a measure of success (albeit a limited one), the notion that year on year jumps hold any significance is patently unfounded - you cannot measure achievement and change in 12 months. Praising the University for hopping up two spots is nothing more than a celebration of noisy data.
Despite efforts by a few vigilantes to boycott the rankings (at the expense of their universities’ placings), university league tables won’t be going anywhere. Comparisons can and should exist, but beyond flawed, uninformative tables. That four St Andrews undergraduates recently helped discover a class of molecules that could treat Alzheimer's says more about our university than any of the league tables published this year. The persistent obsession with university rankings is ultimately not only harmful for any prospective students, but for the institutions themselves.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew