University Rankings: an international viewpoint

~Written for London Student Paper, Volume 31, Issue 2 ~

The Harvard/Oxbridge battle took an interesting turn this year when QS and The Times parted, creating two distinctive international league tables for universities. For the Times (and their new partners) Harvard held its pre-eminent position while Cambridge and Oxford jointly appeared in 6th place. QS, however, produced a table more pleasing to the Anglophiles amongst us, dethroning the American giant and placing Cambridge in the top spot.  Were it not for an understanding that such tables are based on criteria with varying emphasis the differences would border on galling. Within the top 20 the Times ranked only 3 UK institutions, whereas QS placed 4 within the top 10 alone. Differentiation of technique aside its clear in both tables that within our special cross-Atlantic relationship the US is still the top trump. In the face of such dominance it seems fair to ask is there any deeper root to this sliding scale of success than a more or less generous dose of student satisfaction?

To start with what is most obvious America is far bigger than the UK which could, it must be acknowledged, nestle itself cozily into Michigan with a bit of room to stretch out.  Such a disparity implies a considerably larger population and, resultantly, a very differently scaled education system. However, places on international league tables are almost always fought out (particularly within the higher ranks) by the same, recurring names; your standard Russell Group/ Ivy league types and their second-tier counterparts. Sheer volume isn’t necessarily the winning ticket. Rather it’s about cultivating a high level of quality and maintaining it, something only a proportionately small number of institutions do year in, year out. In terms of ratio (to be momentarily technical) roughly 1 in 4 UK universities made it into the Times table; the US approximately 1 in 58. Volume safely discounted.

Throwing these technicalities aside we get to the realities of going to university in each country. To generalize, it is arguably true that there are very different attitudes adopted in the US and the UK to life at large. Where Americans are more likely to take a positive and emotive approach, we Brits display a marked level of sarcasm and refrain (a facet of character which makes the comedies here less entertaining to our friendly neighbors from the 50 states). This sort of disposition makes student satisfaction indicators diverse; it has to be agreed that a critical mind is less likely to deem a course ‘great’ than an openly enthusiastic one. However, chalking it all up to a sunny disposition does down the obvious enjoyment UK students exhibit when enthralled in a good lecture (or pint) at university.  It seems again our conclusion is elsewhere.

Another factor for consideration is that of expectations. Where any 17 year old with a television can envisage the parties, workload, and social experiences of your average American college student through Hollywood and TV, what lies ahead for UK students remains much more mysterious. American students expect to spend their days more or less in classes, prepared to juggle the difficulty of Kierkegaard against the complexities of equations; English students have no such experience. Choosing one course means, inevitably, fewer classes, and less time on campus.

It is inarguable that the experience is vastly different, from basic timetabling to the promulgation of the “good job” demeanor in the US. The systems are invariably unique. Whether one is better or not is a more complex issue than can be concluded here or, so it would appear, in the league tables of today whose disagreements underline the reality that ‘its all relative’.

Victoria Yates