Just how important are Higher Education league tables?

Published: 21 August 2013

We’ve all been there; faced with a choice to make from an indistinguishable group, our natural inclination tends to be a clamour for order and logic. The annual round of Higher Education league tables aim to apply this logic to a critical decision making process, but do they actually work? Why are there so many? Which one is the best?

HE league table literature creates headlines after each publishing. With five providers of tables all competing to tell us which University is top of the tree, students are faced with a hugely confusing and fragmented view. And when university reputations are taken into account in what is an increasingly global “stat”, the snakes and ladders of annual tables has a further ranging impact.

The first thing to consider is, do they actually get used? The answer would appear to be a resounding yes. Research from Royal Holloway has indicated that league tables are increasingly influential in both university and course selection. The myriad of tables all tell a different story though, and it’s here that the reader should take caution. The Guardian for instance places its emphasis on student experience where the Times opt for an information driven approach based on the universities empirical outcomes. A deeper analysis of the “big five” shows that the vanity of being top 20 could mean the institution chosen is from a category that is not even important for the selector.

Of course, it isn’t just students looking at these. Academic staff and senior management also think about the implications of leaving a highly ranked institution for a lesser ranked one. This effect on recruitment and selection is not to be overlooked, particularly in a sector which is becoming ever increasingly image conscious and brand driven.   

With the AAB cap lifted, the rise in tuition fees, and increased information at our fingertips, the use of league tables in decision making seems here to stay. The impact on Student Recruitment activity within universities will be a fascinating one to watch play out.

Gin Bhandal is a Consultant in the Education Practice at Berwick Partners – View Gin’s Profile

Categories: Education Recruitment

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