'University rankings open up a world of opportunities – along with practical and cost-effective alternatives to the UK'

TES Opinion

Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, writes:

Rankings can rankle. As the UK university applications process opens at this time each year, teachers and their pupils are bombarded with confusing and often contradictory data about university performance. The so-called university rankings season can seem like it is driven by the desire to sell newspapers more than the desire to inform one of the most important decisions a sixth-former may ever make – who to trust with their university education.

But as long as they are handled with care and the various methodological quirks are unpicked, university rankings can provide a useful and indeed an inspiring resource – not just helping to inform choices, but helping to raise aspirations too. And with such a life-changing decision for an ever-growing number of pupils, it is no longer good enough to rely on reputation, hearsay or personal experience (or is that personal prejudice?). As the US statistician W Edwards Deming said: “In God we trust – all others must bring data”.

The data in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, out this week, certainly illustrate one thing very clearly – the options for bright sixth-formers have never been better, and the opportunities are truly global.

First, let’s be clear about the methodologies. Many of the domestic university rankings can be perverse. If a university is ranked on how hard it is to get into, for example, it is easy to simply raise entry requirements and move up a few notches – at the expense of students with great future potential but without stellar grades right now. If universities are ranked on how many first-class degrees they bestow, they can simply change the algorithm to dish out a few more, irrespective of actual exam standards.

There is dubious value in ranking an entire national university system on a single scale anyway, as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are doing a very different job to, for example, an inner-city teaching led-institution whose primary mission is social inclusion and getting people the skills they need for local jobs. So why brand the inner-city university a bottom-ranked failure against benchmarks it was never set up to reach?

The THE World University Rankings rank only like-minded, similar institutions. We are looking only at the globally-focussed, research-intensive universities, using globally available and globally comparable data. They may have different cultures, different histories and governing structures, but they are all recruiting the brightest students and staff from all over the world, they are all at the top of their game in research, publishing in the leading global journals. They are all at the forefront of new knowledge creation.

The THE World University Rankings use 13 separate performance indicators to measure all core missions of a global university: the teaching environment, research excellence, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

On this basis, the UK clearly presents some outstanding options. In the 2014-15 rankings published on 1 October 2014, the UK has three of the world’s top ten universities: Oxford in 3rd, Cambridge in 5th and Imperial College London in 9th. Overall, it has 29 of the world’s top 200, and 45 in the top 400.

But the THE rankings open up a world of opportunities – and in many cases provide some practical and cost-effective alternatives to the UK.

While England’s universities have settled on tuition fees around the £9,000 a year mark, tuition in Germany is free. Last week Lower Saxony, the last of seven Germany states still charging, agreed to scrap tuition fees. And German universities are good. Germany’s top ranked university, the University of Munich, is ranked 29th in the world – ahead of the University of Edinburgh in 36th and King’s College London, in 40th. Lower down the list, University of Heidelberg takes 70th place, just ahead of Bristol University in 74th.

In the Netherlands, where fees are in the region of £1,300 and where there is an active campaign to attract England’s students and a growth in English-language tuition, almost all of the research universities make the world top 200 – 11 in total. Leiden University, in 64th place, is not too far behind Manchester University, in 52nd.

Canada is another country seeking to woo UK students with reasonable fees, and for the more adventurous, there are active international recruitment drives in China and Japan, as well as other Asian nations.

Overseas study may not just provide a cost-effective option – it will enhance any student’s CV too. A report published by the European Commission last week, Erasmus Impact Study, found that 64 per cent of businesses believe international experience makes a candidate more employable, and 92 per cent said they were looking for the “transversal skills” likely to be picked up on international study, such as curiosity, problem-solving, tolerance and confidence.

But if those numbers are not persuasive enough, the research also found that study abroad can be good for your love life – over a quarter of people who studied abroad under Erasmus met their current life partners during their studies.

See the top 400 universities in the world and six top-100 special subject tables at www.thewur.com


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