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Do University League Tables Provide a Complete Picture of a University?
Picking a place to study for a postgraduate degree can be a tough decision. There are so many different factors that you need to take into consideration before making your final choice. Ultimately you need to find a university that is best suited to what you want to study, and using university league tables – be they official or unofficial – can make this task much easier. Just by having a single glance at a league table you can learn a lot about a university and the courses that they provide.
Unfortunately there aren’t as many postgraduate league tables as there are undergraduate league tables, in fact The Guardian is currently the only British newspaper that publishes postgraduate league tables. This means it is much harder to assess a university on how good it will be for postgraduate study as opposed to undergraduate study. This can make it difficult to reach a decision as you don’t have as much information as you had when you were choosing where you wanted to study at undergraduate level.
However undergraduate league tables aren’t completely useless when trying to build a picture of a how good a university will be for postgraduate study. They can still be used to gather some insight on higher education institutions as they provide a lot of useful statistics. You can use them to find out the student-to-staff ratio is, how many full-time and part-time students attend a university, as well as many other useful facts. But the question is - do league tables provide a complete picture of a university?
#1 Full-time & part-time students
All league tables will supply you with this information. These statistics offer a pretty accurate picture of the percentages of full-time and part-time students that are in attendance at a university or on a specific course. However these numbers are only a snapshot of the number of students enrolled at the university at a specific point in time. From the time that the league tables are published these numbers could change as more people may enrol or some people may drop out. But all in all by looking at this piece of data you can get a pretty good idea of the makeup of full-time and part-time students at a university.
#2 Expenditure per student
This is the total amount of money that is spent by the university divided by the number of students that are enrolled at the university. Although it gives you a rough idea of how much money is spent per student, you do need to bear in mind that funding and budget cuts are ongoing processes that affect the amount of money a university has to spend. This may mean that the amount of money spent per student may increase or decrease from the time the league tables were published, depending on whether a university suffers from cuts or receives some extra funding.
You also need to take into account that this number is an average across all students. In reality the same amount of money isn’t spent on every student. Certain courses require more resources that others, for example science courses involve a lot of lab work, which require a lot of materials and staff. Therefore science students will have more money designated to them than will be designated to English postgraduates, who don’t need as many resources, as most of their work is lecture and seminar based.
#3 Student-to-staff ratio
For many prospective postgraduate students the student-to-staff ratio is one of the most important factors when trying to reach a decision on which university to choose. This is because the more staff there are to students, the better the quality of teaching is likely to be, right? A high student-to-staff ratio means that students have a high number of academic staff that they can turn to if they have a problem, and it will be much easier and quicker to get an answer to said problem. Plus, the staff can designate greater amounts of time to each student.
However be careful when looking at his statistic as you need to consider the possibility that not every member of staff will be good. There is still the small possibility that some staff may be bad teachers, so even though there may be a higher number of staff to students it doesn’t always correlate to quality teaching.
#4 Completion rate
Every league table supplies you with the percentage of people who completed the courses both on a full-time or part-time basis. This is a good indicator of how good a course is as the higher the percentage of people who complete it the better the course is.
Yet what this fact doesn’t reveal is what type of degree classification postgraduate students left with. They could all be leaving with 1st class degrees or they could be leaving with 3rd class degrees, and obviously the former is much more favourable than the latter...
So to conclude when looking at university league tables you should be aware that you can’t just take the statistics provided as the complete truth. While they can be a good indicator of the quality of an institution, they can never provide a complete picture of what a university is going to be like.
Good sources for undergraduate league tables
• The Complete University Guide – This is a great site to use as it provides statistics such as student satisfaction and also includes the RAE, which is great for postgraduates. If you click on a university's name you are then taken to a page that provides you with a lot of information on that university that is ideal for prospective postgraduates. From 2008 The Complete University Guide has been carried out in association with The Independent.
• The Times Good University Guide – The Times is the biggest producer of undergraduate league tables and produces a book each year as well as printing the league tables in the newspaper itself.
• The Sunday Times – The Sunday Times also releases undergraduate league tables on a yearly basis. The league tables produced by The Sunday Times are different to those put together by The Times as they use slightly different criteria.
• The Guardian – Although The Guardian produces postgraduate league tables, it also produces undergraduate league tables that can be used to aid your decision on where to study a postgraduate programme at.
• The Virgin Guide To British Universities – This guide is only available as a book but provides a pretty comprehensive guide about UK universities.
The Complete University Guide – in greater detail
The Complete University Guide rankings use the following criteria:
- Student satisfaction (maximum score of 20, with a weighting of 1.5) – average score of those parts of the latest National Student Survey measuring satisfaction with the learning experience.
- Research assessment (maximum score of 7, with a weighting of 1.5) – average research assessment score per member of staff in the latest Research Assessment Exercise.
- Entry standards (weighting of 1.0) – average UCAS tariff score for new first-degree students who are under 21 when starting.
- Student/staff ratio (weighting of 1.0) – average number of students per member of academic staff.
- Spending on academic services (weighting of 1.0) – average amount of money spent over the most recent three years for which there are records on libraries, computers, galleries and museums per ‘full-time equivalent student’.
- Facilities spend (£) (weighting of 1.0) – amount of money spent over the most recent three years for which there are records on student and staff facilities per ‘full-time equivalent student’.
- Good honours (weighting of 1.0) – percentage of first-degree graduates who finish with a first- or upper second-class honours degree.
- Graduate prospects (weighting of 1.0) – percentage of first-degree graduates based in the UK going on to graduate-level employment or further study in the most recent year for which there are records.
- Completion (weighting of 1.0) – percentage of full-time first-degree students starting in the most recent year for which there are records who are deemed likely to finish their programmes on time.
Subject tables are made up of four of the measures above: student satisfaction; research assessment; entry standards; and graduate prospects. All are given equal weight.
The Sunday Times University Guide – in greater detail
The Sunday Times University Guide rankings use the following criteria:
- Student satisfaction (200 points) – based on the results of the latest National Student Survey to produce a percentage of the maximum score possible that is then applied to the points allocated.
- Teaching excellence (50 points) – the number of ‘excellent’ subject areas, according to The Sunday Times’ criteria, as a percentage of the total number of subjects assessed at each university on a rolling programme since 1995, based on the most up-to-date data from the Quality Assurance Agency, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (teacher training excellence is based on Ofsted assessments).
- Heads’/peer assessments (100 points) – overall score of the quality of undergraduate provision of subjects at each institution, as assessed by heads and academics in a survey by The Sunday Times , expressed as a percentage of the maximum number possible, which is then applied to the points allocated.
- Research quality (200 points) – this is the result of a percentage score for excellence based on the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, taking into account both the quality and quantity of research assessed, that is then applied to the points allocated.
- A-level/Higher points (250 points) – based on the UCAS tariff points of students entering the institution with A- and AS-levels, Highers and Advanced Highers. This is based on the most recent HESA data.
- Unemployment (100 points) – derived from the percentage of graduates unemployed six months after graduation according to the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey and the percentage of full-time first-degree graduates in full-time non-graduate jobs as defined by Standard Occupational Classification 2000 grouping.
- Firsts/2.1s awarded (100 points) – percentage of students who graduated with these according to the latest HESA data.
- Student/staff ratio (100 points) – student/staff ratio as calculated by HESA, with the ratio of 10:1 being the benchmark worth the full 100 points.
- Dropout rate (variable points) – based on the percentage difference between the number of students who dropped out before completing their courses and the number expected to do so according to the latest Higher Education Funding Council for England data, which is multiplied by five and awarded as a bonus or deducted as a penalty.
There are other ‘indicators’ in the individual profiles that The Sunday Times has for each UK institution. These do not count towards to league table result, but add to the overall picture.
The Times Good University Guide rankings – in greater detail
- Student satisfaction (weighting of 1.5) – average score of all parts of the two most recent National Student Surveys.
- Research quality (weighting of 1.5) – overall quality of research, derived from a combination of the quality and volume measures data of the latest Research Assessment Exercise.
- Entry standards (weighting of 1.0) – average UCAS tariff points for under-21 entrants in the most recent year for which there are records.
- Student/staff ratio (weighting of 1.0) – average number of students per member of academic staff (excluding staff solely devoted to research) in the most recent year for which there are records.
- Services and facilities spending (weighting of 1.0) – the average amount of money spent over the last two most recent years for which there are records on facilities (eg library and IT, careers, sport, health and counselling) per student.
- Completion (weighting of 1.0) – percentage of students starting in the most recent year for which there are records (and earlier years) who are deemed likely to finish their degree programme (includes those who transfer to other institutions).
- Good honours (weighting of 1.0) – percentage of students finishing with a first- or upper second-class degree in the most recent year for which there are records.
- Graduate prospects (weighting of 1.0) – percentage of UK graduates based in graduate-level employment or further study six months after graduation in the most recent year for which there are records.
The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings
The Times Higher-QS World University Rankings use the following criteria:
- Academic peer review (40%) – a combination of the opinions of academics around the world.
- Employer review (10%) – based on the opinions of graduate recruiters around the world as to which institutions they prefer to recruit from.
- Staff/student ratio (20%) – based on numbers of full- and part-time staff and students to give an average number of students per member of academic staff, using full-time equivalents throughout as far as possible.
- Citations/staff (20%) – based on the number of citations of an institution’s published papers (based on citations data supplied by Scopus ) divided by the number of full-time equivalent staff
- International staff (5%) – based on the number of staff from other countries.
- International students (5%) – based on the percentage of overseas students at the institution.
The US News & World Report‘s World’s Best Colleges and Universities ranking – in greater detail
The US News & World Report‘s World’s Best Colleges and Universities ranking
uses the following criteria:
- Academic peer review (40%) – a combined score based on an online survey of academics worldwide (divided into five subject areas), with weightings for both geographical and subject areas to ensure fair representation of all parts of the world.
- Employer review (10%) – based on a global online employer survey, with weighting again in place to ensure fair representation of all parts of the world.
- Student-to-faculty ratio (20%) – based on the institution’s student-to-academic staff ratio.
- Citations per faculty member (20%) – based on the number of citations of an institution’s published papers factored against the number of an institution’s faculty members in order to allow for the size of the institution.
- International faculty (5%) – based on the proportion of international faculty members at the institution.
- International students (5%) – based on the proportion of international students at the institution.
The Wall Street Journal – Executive MBA rankings – in greater details
- Student survey score (40%) – score received by a business school in a survey of EMBA students.
- Corporate survey score (40%) – score given to a business school in a survey of companies familiar with EMBA programmes.
- Management and leadership skills score (20%) – based on student ratings of 20 specific leadership skills with weightings for the percentage of corporate respondents saying that that skill was the most important for an EMBA programme to teach.
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