Aaron Porter: Shopping around

January 1, 1990

6 October 2011

Don't blame prospective students for using league tables to weigh up the relative merits of universities, says Aaron Porter. They know that employers have their eyes on the rankings, too

Whether they like them or loathe them, higher education institutions want to finish as high up in the league tables as they can - being careful, of course, always to cite the rankings where they perform best in their marketing materials, on their websites and in public pronouncements by their vice-chancellors.

It is often said that there are about 50 universities that claim to be in the top 10, and the multitude of rankings and tables means that institutions will pick and choose the league table they want to hold in high esteem in any given year - only to discard it the next year if they find that they performed better somewhere else.

Many students realise that the external perception of their institution is affected by their standings in league tables, and that some employers still resort to the sloppy practice of screening applications by rankings. Thus there is an incentive for students to try to end up at an institution with that all-important high league-table placing.

I've lost count of the number of frustrated recent graduates I've encountered who have found that their job applications hit the recycle bin without so much as a glance from an employer. Their applications were discarded simply because they attended institutions that didn't feature highly enough in the rankings for some employers to deem them worthy of their time, effort and consideration.

Of course, such practices are indicative of a flawed recruitment system, and short-sighted employers will miss out on many talented graduates who may have chosen a course based on the curriculum content or the academic staff in a particular department, rather than merely the institution's overall ranking.

But while I stand by my criticism of employers who use such narrow, unsophisticated and unfair recruitment tactics, I can't help but think that prospective students still have a right to know what game-playing lies ahead of them as they fill out their Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms.

The real value of the plethora of information offered to prospective students has been hotly debated for a number of years. And as the financial cost of entering higher education increases, the extent to which that information has come under the spotlight has intensified, too. Institutions have taken an ever-keener interest in ensuring that wherever information exists, their institution is represented, and in the best light possible.

In a landscape where many students find it hard to distinguish one institution from the next, rightly or wrongly, two or three positions in a league table can make the difference between one university ending up on an applicant's Ucas form and another being omitted.

The harsh reality is that however much information on universities is available, the applicants who are unable to find the money or time off to attend all the open days they'd like will end up relying on a few trusted sources.

Indeed, when it came to filling in my own Ucas form, once I'd settled on my top two institutions from the four I'd visited, the rest were simply chosen from within a particular range in a selection of league tables, without even visiting the campus or leafing through the prospectus. I wouldn't recommend this approach to the prospective student of 2012, but I know I wasn't alone in doing so - and I'm sure the practice will continue as long as the Ucas system exists.

The truth of this issue, as with so many hotly debated subjects, is that the devil is in the detail. League tables' value is really in the metrics that underpin them. Lots of students are taken in by some of the tables, blindly assuming that the results draw on a robust set of metrics that match up with what users see as important for their own student experience. But few will know whether the league table they have relied on to make a decision about where to apply is weighted towards research, student satisfaction or employability.

One of the likely consequences of the higher tuition-fee regime in the UK is that applicants will start to evaluate British institutions alongside universities from the US, Australia, continental Europe and East Asia. As UK institutions look less and less appealing financially, students' ability to evaluate institutions across national borders will become more and more important. And with the rising reputation of higher education in China, India and Brazil, students will be looking for new ways to evaluate institutions from all over the world.

Rightly the debate will continue to rage about the pros and cons of trying to reduce something as complex as a university into a range of simple metrics and, ultimately, a single ranking. Today's prospective students are faced with a world where the issue isn't the availability of information, but rather the challenge of navigating the data that match up with their interests and expectations.

Some observers will continue to suggest that league tables simply exacerbate the marketisation of higher education, but this needs to be reconciled with an acknowledgement that students want to make comparisons between one institution and the next.

In a world where league tables are obviously here to stay, it is essential that there is real transparency to the metrics used to underpin the rankings. Where that happens, students will be able to pick and choose the metrics that are right for them in order to make informed choices about the kind of institution and experience they want, in the UK or further afield.

Aaron Porter was president of the UK's National Union of Students in 2010-11. He is a higher education consultant and director of Aaron Ross Porter Consultancy

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