Three weeks ago, The Times released its 2022 Good University Guide, and for the first time in history, humble St Andrews rose to the top of the league table. Considering the prestige of its competitors, this was no small feat; scarcely a soul hasn’t heard tales of Oxford and Cambridge, and scarcely a student hasn’t dreamt of them. This is truly a triumph, right?
Based on the title of this piece, you can probably guess my answer. Yes, the University of St Andrews earned itself the coveted first place position in a reputable ranking table. The systems that led to the ranking, however, prescribe predictable victors rather than capture what students — both prospective and current — value.
To demonstrate, I will create a perfect theoretical school according to The Times’s method:
The school must be small. In fact, it must be as small as possible, shooing unworthy applicants away from its ivory towers. The Times explicitly weights entry standards, so the school needs “A” students with robust resumes. Considering the relatively limited supply of such human resources, the university cannot possibly sustain such a standard without a lesser size. A small size kills two birds with one stone. Fewer students means fewer faculty required to generate a high student/faculty ratio. Fortunately, the indiscriminate use of this ratio allows the university to focus on research staff. Number and quality of teaching interactions doesn’t weigh the ranks, research does.
Of course, a small size does come with disadvantages; Tuition comes from far fewer hands. Less tuition means less spending for student and staff facilities, a critical metric to The Times. Unlike American universities, my theoretical university can’t simply push tuition to high heaven. There are limits here. Fortunately, such limits don’t apply to international students, so the university will shift its focus abroad, driving as close to a 50–50 domestic/international split as it can, increasing domestic exclusivity while filling class capacity with higher paying, higher achieving students. While there are no doubt several domestic students in excess of capacity, worthy of matriculation, they simply don’t pay the bills.
There are a few trickier metrics to maximise; student satisfaction and success seem difficult to guarantee. Fortunately, the University’s established exclusivity assists here. Besides the admitted students’ pre-existing propensity for excellence, mere inclusion into the university validates student worth, regardless of how the university repays their investment. With a bit of school pride, a pinch of tradition, and a serving of the sunk cost fallacy, the University takes hold in students’ identity. Then, it doesn’t matter whether the courses are confusing. When the student satisfaction survey rolls around, of course the student is satisfied, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t belong. Of course the student will graduate, because if they didn’t, they weren’t meant to come. Meanwhile, they will simply struggle behind closed doors.
The last pickle to fry is diversity. Unfortunately, the tools at my university’s disposal wear thin here. It can reduce size and bring in enough students to make my school seem less privileged, less white, but only to a degree. Likely, the administration will just cross their fingers and hope the score isn’t weighted too high in ranking calculations.
Now, my theoretical university just needs a name, perhaps Oxford?
The Times’ ranking system is not prophetic. Neither it, nor any other ranking schema, guarantee the emergence of these patterns. They do, however, prioritize them. The Times top universities show, over the past few years, a heated battle among Cambridge, Oxford, and St. Andrews — all small schools with a high emphasis on attracting international students, to the exclusion of domestic students. They all charge high premiums for said students, which is then directed into university activity. They all are incredibly exclusive, with deep traditions rooting their students into a common identity, justifying a rigorous work ethic.
Perhaps the recent guide shows a genuine victory for students. In every method category, except student experience and teaching quality, either Cambridge or Oxford, exempted from the categories, tied or defeated St Andrews. Student well-being was the last straw placed on the proverbial camel’s back.
Still, we must be wary and give no more credence to our new ranking than is deserved. St Andrews demonstrated its ability to beat both Oxford and Cambridge at their own game. That’s something to be celebrated. We must, however, critically examine the game all three institutions play. How universities garner reputation, rather than a reputation’s simple presence, should remain foremost in our mind. Is the elite school’s game a game that prioritises access or elitism? Is it a game that prioritizes wealth or equity? Is it a game that prioritises image or student wellbeing?
Is it a game that prioritises us?
Image: Wikimedia Commons