Photograph of a St Andrews graduate by Islay McLeod
For school leavers juggling exams and the pressures of adolescence while the imminent threat of adulthood looms closer and closer, choosing a university from the 129 on offer in the UK can seem like a decision they don't have the time to make.
Six years ago, when I was thinking about where to go to university, I didn't factor league tables into my decision. Instead, I based my choice on a combination of my general impression of Edinburgh, conversations with students already enrolled and gut instinct.
But for some of my peers, league tables offered objective, accessible insight into what the next three or four years could be like. For the freshers of tomorrow, the release of the latest results from the Complete University Guide (CUG) may either cement or shake their faith in their university of choice.
Predictably, Oxbridge occupy the two highest spots in the 2018 CUG league table, followed by St Andrews at number three, making the Fife university the highest-ranking in Scotland for the 11th year in a row. The second highest is Edinburgh at number 23, down four places from last year and falling out of the UK top 20 in the process.
At the bottom of the list are London Metropolitan, Wrexham Glyndwr and Suffolk. Together they hold an average student-staff ratio of 19.4, nearly double that of Oxbridge and St Andrews, as well as a considerably lower graduate prospects rating.
But the value of university league tables like this is contentious. There are three national rankings of universities in the UK published annually by CUG, the Guardian and the Times Higher Education (THE). All of them claim to report the same thing, but with little consistency across all three.
In last year's CUG table, the three highest-ranking places were awarded to Oxbridge and London School of Economics. By contrast, St Andrews and Imperial College London came third in the Guardian and THE respectively. Furthermore, although St Andrews was the highest-ranking university in Scotland in both the CUG and Guardian tables, Edinburgh was ranked the highest by THE, followed by Glasgow and then St Andrews.
Each table also incorporates different criteria and weighting into its ranking system, and even the criteria common to all three is misleading. Student-staff ratios, for example, might give an indication of how far the university invests in its teaching staff, but it doesn't explain how many contact hours students receive each week. The graduate prospects rating is also limited in that the data used for this category is only collated within six months of students leaving university. CUG, the Guardian and THE compile their league tables based on data that is most accessible; not necessarily what is most valuable.
League tables also contain a degree of inconsistency within themselves. In the latest CUG results, Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews hold an average student satisfaction rating of 4.2 out of 5, while London Metropolitan, Wrexham Glyndwr and Suffolk possess an average rating of 4.1. Despite their positions on opposite ends of the list, student satisfaction at these universities is rated relatively equal.
King's College London, Manchester and Edinburgh ranked comparatively lower – despite occupying spots in the top 30 – with an average student satisfaction rating of 3.9. What's most surprising, however, is that although London School of Economics is the fourth highest-ranking university in the UK overall, it received the lowest student satisfaction rating in the entire table.
University league tables are limited and inconsistent in these respects and should ultimately play a small part in any school leaver's decision, rather than make the decision for them. Arguably more important is what students want from their university career, whether that is a thriving social scene, overseas opportunities, a job waiting for them when they leave, or a more all-encompassing experience.
In his commencement speech to an Ohio liberal arts college in 2005, David Foster Wallace said to the graduates sitting in front of him that the point in an education like theirs was to discourage blind certainty, or what he called 'a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he’s locked up.' For him, an education in the humanities was about learning to question the things we tend to be automatically certain about, and being able to practise this day in and day out despite the monotony, routine and daily frustrations of adult life.
I didn't know it at the time, but that's what I was looking for from my own university experience. League tables are great for selling newspapers and supplying free PR to high-ranking universities, but they can't tell school leavers what they want. All they can do is consider the facts, go with their gut and learn the rest as they go along.