Christopher Marshall: Staying top of the form

Students from the University of St Andrews wearing their red gowns. Picture: Jane Barlow
Students from the University of St Andrews wearing their red gowns. Picture: Jane Barlow
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CHRISTOPHER MARSHALL outlines why league tables are here to stay and their importance for our institutions in attracting students, particularly from overseas

Ask most academics or educationalists what they think of league tables and you’re likely be to told they are bunkum, that they are unscientific and that they fail to illuminate the bigger picture. But should said league tables paint their own work or institution in a positive light, then you will receive a rather more favourable and considered response.

Earlier this week, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a private company providing education and careers information, published its annual university rankings.

While the top ten places were taken up by institutions from just two countries – England and the United States – Scotland had three entries in the top 100, leading to warm words from university principals and claims that the country is continuing to punch above its weight internationally.

First compiled in 2004, the rankings take into account a range of criteria, including academic reputation, the opinion of employers, staff to student ratios and the number of citations in academic journals.

This year, the University of Edinburgh came 21st, down from 20th spot last year, while Glasgow moved from 59th to 54th place and St Andrews from 97th to 94th.

Well regarded as it is within the sector, the QS survey will be followed hot on the heels by the Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2012-13, which are published next month.

Described by Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University who carried out a recent review of university governance on behalf of the Scottish Government, as the “gold standard” by which to judge institutions, the guide is just another one of the growing number of league tables published every year.

While the criteria it uses is not the same as that of the QS rankings, last year’s results put Edinburgh in 36th place with 
St Andrews and Glasgow coming in at 85 and 102 respectively. Aberdeen was joint 151st and Dundee was 176th in the top 200 list.

Yet another poll, the Times Higher Education’s 2012 World Reputation Rankings, which was published in March, saw Edinburgh fall from 45th to 49th, the only Scottish institution in the top 100.

Meanwhile, a series of other surveys, including the Complete University Guide and the Guardian University Guide, have regularly named St Andrews as Scotland’s best university and among the best in the United Kingdom.

While the growing number of different league tables makes for a confusing picture, what is clear is that with the increased marketisation of higher education, rankings like these will become more and more important in helping to attract fee-paying students to Scotland’s universities from the rest of the UK and from overseas.

In a further indication of where things are headed, consumer champion Which? this week launched a website that allows prospective students to weigh up everything from the quality of teaching to 
the price of a pint in the union bar.

But just how useful are league tables like these in assessing Scotland’s place in the world when it comes to higher education?

Professor Anton Muscatelli, the principal of the University of Glasgow, says the rankings play a crucial role in helping to assert Scotland’s place on the international stage, while helping to bring in new students.

“The tables are always going to be based on a small number of indicators and have to be treated cautiously,” he says. “But there’s no doubt they are one of the key factors students look at, especially international students.

“The QS does a very extensive survey of peer reputation and asks around 40,000 academics and 20,000 employers. There’s a strong objective element too, but it’s not the only measure of how students choose a university.

“To have three universities in the top 100, I think, is unique given our population size and places us near the top of the world as a country. Scotland is one of the few countries in the western world that has increased funding in higher education and that’s a huge thing.”

While rankings have in the past concentrated solely on factors such as research funding and the number of articles in academic journals, increasingly they are reflecting the new reality and focusing on employability.

The introduction of new higher-rate tuition fees from this year means universities can no longer afford to rely on their centuries-old reputations.

While Scots will remain exempt from fees if studying in their home country, those from elsewhere in the UK will pay up to £9,000 a year to attend universities including Edinburgh and St Andrews.

The increased financial burden means applicants will think harder than ever before about a university’s standing in the world and how likely they are to get a good job at the end of their studies. It seems that, if they ever existed, gone are the days when school-leavers applied to study Classics purely for the love of the subject.

Evidence is already emerging of how Scotland’s universities will fair under the system, and some of the early signs are positive.

Figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service last month showed a 26 per cent rise in the number of those from England and Wales accepting places at Scottish universities, despite the new higher fees. That was in marked contrast to England’s own universities, which recorded an 8 per cent fall in the number of English students being accepted.

But while Glasgow had attempted to undercut its east coast rivals, setting its fees at £6,750 a year, the university saw a 24 per cent fall in the number of students being accepted from the rest of the UK.

In contrast, St Andrews recorded a 9 per cent increase. While being the alma mater of Prince William and Kate Middleton no doubt helped, the university’s reputation has been bolstered by a series of recent league tables putting it alongside the likes of “Oxbridge”, University College London and the London School of Economics as one of the UK’s leading seats of learning.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, which represents principals, says: “When my members go around internationally to talk about what we’ve got to offer, it’s a lot to do with quality of life, heritage and tradition but, to be perfectly frank, students – particularly those in the Far East – do keep an eye on these tables and they’re a part of the decision-making process.”

It seems that league tables are here to stay. The challenge will be making sure our universities can maintain their place within them.

• Christopher Marshall is The Scotsman’s education correspondent