University tables: what do they all mean?

With new university rankings now being published, incoming Features Editor Ollie Smith investigates their differences.

As Epigram reported yesterday the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) has released its 2019 rankings for universities with Bristol ranked 7th in the UK and 65th in the world. The Guardian and The Complete University Guide have also released their 2019 UK rankings with Bristol 20th and 15th respectively.

But are these rankings truly reflective of reality and how do they differ in their methods?

Whilst many students choose universities based on factors such as historical prestige, campus or city, location, accommodation, appearance and many others, the tables are often used as an indicator of how highly regarded the university is publically and in regard to job prospects.

The key difference between these tables is the measurement of student satisfaction and the fact is that Bristol performs lower in tables once this is taken into account. Global tables like the CWUR put more of an emphasis on academic standing rather than student satisfaction which is usually the focus of national tables.

The CWUR takes what it calls a ‘quantitative approach’ to its rankings that does not rely on student surveys and university data. There is a strong emphasis on the level of the university’s research quality and output and how well regarded it is academically. In terms of teaching it measures the levels of alumni employment based on CEO positions and ranks educational quality based on major awards won by alumni.

UK based national tables tend to focus more on student experience

A potential criticism of such an approach may be that the sole measurement of CEOs is exclusive to the high end of alumni and award winners largely applies to those with careers in academia which the majority of students are unlikely to pursue.

As of this year research now accounts for 70% of the total score with the high ranking they gave Bristol demonstrating that as an academic institution it is very highly regarded. In terms of alumni employment Bristol is ranked at 296th in the world, with only Oxford and Cambridge being ranked in the top 100 from the UK’s top 20. Bristol is ranked 186th globally in terms of quality of education but a high 48th with quality of faculty. Bristol’s high ranking for the CWUR therefore owes more to its academic standing and output than the quality of its teaching.

UK based national tables tend to focus more on student experience. The Complete University Guide, for example, includes categories in its measures such as student satisfaction based on the National Student Survey (NSS), graduate prospects, student-staff ratio, academic services spend, the percentage of those achieving a first or 2:1, and the completion rate of degrees.

Graduate prospects differs from the CWUR in that employment measures those with a First class degree in jobs that recruit graduates so does not count jobs that do not require a degree. Under these 2019 rankings Bristol is 15th in the UK and has made the top 20 for four of the last five years.

Bristol is usually ranked as a top ten UK university in the global rankings but top 20 nationally for the UK surveys

For some reason Bristol’s student satisfaction along with Oxford, Cambridge and a few others is not included. Last year’s NSS survey gained publicity when a number of students' unions, Bristol's included, chose to promote a boycott. Broken down, the CWUR puts Bristol 11th for research quality and 32nd for graduate prospects, reflecting great strength for academic research.

The Guardian’s table puts total emphasis on student experience, measuring satisfaction with course, teaching and feedback, as well as the amount of money spend on each student, those with a graduate job after six months and the average entry tariff. Under the 2019 table Bristol ranks 20th in the country, up from 27th last year.

Satisfaction is also measured using the NSS with Bristol having the 11th highest rating for teaching satisfaction but only 41st for course satisfaction. Of Bristol graduates 80% have a graduate level job after six months which is the 29th highest level in the UK. Interestingly Bristol has the 11th highest average entry tariff, perhaps indicating with teaching satisfaction the high academic quality shown in the global tables.

The difference between national and global rankings is clearer from the list below where Bristol is usually ranked as a top ten UK university in the global rankings but top 20 nationally for the UK surveys. Based on the different metrics used Bristol is therefore very highly regarded as an academic institution but slips slightly once student experience is also taken into account. Nevertheless, top 20 is still excellent and the consistency across rankings demonstrates a global acceptance that Bristol is truly a world class university.

Current Bristol rankings:
• 20th UK - Guardian (2019)
• 15th UK - The Complete University Guide (2019)
• 16th UK – The Times (2018)
• 7th UK / 65th World – CWUR (2019)
• 9th UK / 76th World - Times Higher Education (2018)
• 9th UK / 44th World – QS World University Rankings (2018)

Featured image: Unsplash/Nathan Riley

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