3 league tables are ridiculous

We’ve been obsessed with academic league tables since the 1980s.

Schools are ranked, universities are ranked, individual departments in universities are ranked. For some, it’s big business: there’s money to be made in publishing league tables. Times Higher Education spends a fortune publishing and promoting its World University Rankings each year and holding expensive dinners around the world to celebrate the winners.

But I believe league tables are of very little value to you.

We all agree Cambridge is the best university in the world. (Don’t we?) So you may as well apply there.

Except you probably won’t get in. Unless you’re very good. And even then you probably won’t get in. They just don’t have enough places.

OK, well apply to Manchester then. That’s what my maths teacher said I should do. He went there, had a great time, did very well and got a job he loved afterwards. Of course, he was also a lot older than I was. And his Manchester was not the same Manchester I would be applying to. Places change. New facilities are built. Lecturers come and go. And he wasn’t the same kind of person I was: I don’t like big cities for a start.

On the other hand Professor Brian Cox (the one off the telly) now works at Manchester. So maybe you should apply. Except how likely is it that he will be teaching one of the specific modules that you’ll be taking in your course? And even if he did teach your favourite module last year, how do you know he’s still going to be teaching it by the time you get there? Lecturers get bored with teaching the same material over and over again every year. Maybe he’ll be poached by Harvard and he won’t even be at Manchester at all.

Besides everyone knows that Durham is better than Manchester. Probably.

But what does that mean? I challenge you to turn that into a meaningful statement. Seriously. Are the facilities better? (What does that mean? Do you learn more things if you study in a building designed by a famous architect?) Are the lecturers better? (What does that mean? Perhaps Durham’s lecturers are more highly qualified, but does that make them better teachers? Or maybe Durham has a better reputation for research, but how’s that going to help you?) Are Durham graduates more employable? (Does that mean you’ll get a better job? Do you think Manchester graduates are all unemployed and living in poverty? Are all Durham graduates pulling in six figure salaries? Would you be if you went there?)

Don’t even get me started on the meaninglessness of school league tables. (If you do want to get me started on the subject, read my blog post An A grade is not the same as an A grade.)

Nonetheless, every year the tables are published and no doubt you want to look at them. Here’s a selection.


The Telegraph

The Telegraph publishes all kinds of click-bait league tables:

Top 10 universities for job prospects

Top 10 hardest universities to get into

Top 10 subjects for first class degrees

Top 10 degree subjects for graduate prospects

Universities rated by their own students

The Telegraph even publishes a league table of which league tables are the best:

How to read the different university rankings

The Guardian

The Guardian website has exhaustive listings, publishing its overall university league table, as well as individual subject tables

Times Higher Education

Then there’s Times Higher Education, which I referred to at the beginning of this chapter:

Times Higher Education Table of Tables 2015

Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2014-15

Oxbridge tables

Finally, there are league tables for individual Oxbridge colleges:

The Tompkins Table (which ranks colleges at Cambridge)

The Norrington Table (which ranks colleges at Oxford)


So I hate league tables. But what should you do, if I’m right and league tables really are ridiculous?

I’d suggest three things.

First, talk to people who actually go to the universities you’re interested in. If you don’t know any, ask around at school for names of people and then stalk them on Facebook. If you don’t fancy being a stalker, join relevant groups on Facebook and listen in on the conversations. Or try The Student Room website.

Second, read alternative prospectuses. These are written by current students. Here’s the one for Cambridge. The others are easy enough to find on Google.

Third, go there. There’s no substitute for this. Go visit the university – and the town it’s in: after all, you’re going to be living there for three or more years. Open Days are great, but they’re stage-managed: it’s all cakes and dancing girls. Go whenever it suits you – but ideally during term time – and just wander about, drinking it in. If you look like you know what you’re doing, you can easily sneak into buildings and even lectures to get a real feel for what the place is like. If anyone challenges you – or if there’s a card-entry system blocking your path – just say you’re a prospective applicant and you’ve come for a look around. If you’re brave and outgoing, try chatting to people and asking them what they think of the place.

But glamorous trips around the country aren’t the only preparation you need to be doing.

You should be reading, too.

NEXT: 4 Are you really takiNG this seriously?