league tables

World-class institutions or enabling world-class individuals?

University World News has published a fascinating debate, asking if too much emphasis is being put on world-class universities to the detriment of issues like widening participation.

Should all universities strive to top league tables and aim to be the best of the best?

photo by Stefan
photo by Stefan

Ellen Hazelkorn makes the following statement:

“Governments and universities must stop obsessing about global rankings and the top 1% of the world’s 15,000 institutions. Instead of simply rewarding the achievements of elites and flagship institutions, policy needs to focus on the quality of the system-as-a-whole.” [Source]

Another piece, by Parra, Bozo & Inciarte, considers universities in developing countries. But in some ways, it may be worth considering the following in terms of UK institutions too:

“…there cannot be a single model for universities. Rather, different models of universities or other higher education institutions that respond to diverse needs and are substantially different in quality, status and content need to coexist.

“Some universities will reflect the top research centre model; others, the training or professionalising model; and there will be universities that focus their performance on social needs such as community engagement, social service, the micro-economy and social mobility.”

Difficulties arise for widening participation when different levels of higher learning develop, so nothing is simple. Making certain institutions more appealing to disadvantaged young people, for instance, somewhat misses the point. Yet it’s also crucial to consider a diverse range of individual needs and pathways.

It’s easy to say that Oxbridge isn’t necessarily for everyone. But how easy is it to say that the lowest ranked university in the country might be best suited to a top-grade student?

I bet the second statement doesn’t fit so comfortably. My question is, should that be the case?

Success has many faces and comes from many places. As Doug Belshaw argues, “You can strive to be élite (as an individual, organisation or country) without being élitist”. Therefore, in the right circumstances, world-class achievement can arise from a humble position.

Next time you hear someone make a basic comparison or simply state that one thing is better than another, remember that the remarks can only be subjective. Even considerable attempts to back up what’s being said won’t usually result in unarguable fact.

Higher education encompasses so much that institutions can struggle to shine in their many roles and competitive situations. That is why different models of engagement should be welcomed, “otherwise focus is increasingly replaced by dilution“.

Could a world-class graduate emerge from a low-ranking university? I say it’s just as likely as finding a mediocre graduate from a world-class institution.

What say you?

Further reading from the University World News debate:

Student Experience Survey – Which uni is right for you?

Times Higher Education has published the results of its latest Student Experience Survey.  Regardless of whether or not you like league tables like this, the survey could help you get an idea of the type of university you’d be interested in being at (if you’re not yet at uni, of course…).

The important point to take away from this survey is that we’re all different and we’re not all looking for the same student experience.  Take two students and you’ll find that their experiences differ wildly, even if they are both students from the same university.

Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, says, “…students themselves determine the factors important in delivering a high-quality experience.”

That’s why you don’t necessarily want to be at the university rated Number One.  Loughborough has been top of the Times Higher Education survey for three years running and that’s impressive.  However, that doesn’t make a prospective student’s decision a no-brainer.  Eleanor Simmons, part of Opinionpanel (the company who undertook the survey’s research), agrees:

“What’s clear is that universities are offering and students are seeking quite different types of experiences.”

League tables are good for improving your understanding in how a certain university may benefit you and suit your wants and needs.  There are no answers, but there should be some helpful pointers to bring you closer to well-informed university choices.

photo by philmciverphoto by philmciverphoto by philmciver

photos by philmciver

Some questions you might like to ask when shortlisting possible uni choices:

  • Is the campus in a city, a small town, or in the middle of nowhere?
  • Are there any financial incentives on offer to me?
  • What are the sports facilities like?
  • How expensive is the area?
  • What is the accommodation like and is it guaranteed for new students?
  • How do the league tables rate my subject’s teaching quality at the universities?
  • Do I want to move away, or study nearby and commute from home?
  • How is the course structured to suit my learning?
  • What social facilities are on offer?
  • What is the campus atmosphere like?
  • How do current students rate the libraries, IT equipment and access, and other important study facilities?
  • What clubs can I join?
  • Is the campus split up, or all in one area?
  • What other types of assistance do the university offer to students?

Finally, to get a proper feel of a uni and to see if it ‘speaks’ to you, it’s wise to go to an open day.  Better still, you could try to spend some time nearby and get a flavour of the surrounding area.  From my own experience, an intensive visit can be worth more than all the prospectus promotion, league tables, and conversations put together.  So many past students have agreed with me that their choice of university often rested on an amazing open day visit.  And for some, the final choice can come as a surprise.  After being certain that one place had it all, a disappointing open day can destroy it and open the way for another institution to sweep you off your feet.

There’s only so much vibe you can get from a survey.

photo by P D

photo by P D