With campuses in three countries, its respectable age, and status as a founding member of the Russel Group, the University of Nottingham’s academic profile should expect to impress. Appearances can mislead, however. The ageing, more allegedly arbitrary perceptions of reputation are increasingly cast aside in favour of the supposedly objective notion of the university league table. The idea is a fair one, that universities should be judged based on various measurable features, from the outcomes of their graduates to the feedback of their students. Daniel discusses.
In the UK we have no shortage of league tables, each with their own ranking priorities. I was advised to check every list I could get my hands on before making my UCAS application, from the Complete University Guide to the Sunday Times’ table to The Guardian’s, and even the international rankings – Times Higher Education (THE), QS, and the Shanghai Ranking. And many prospective students do the same, there is pressure to attend a ‘top’ university, and the lists’ high-fliers sometimes break from traditional perception. But where does this culture of scrutiny leave the University of Nottingham? Recent years and recent figures have shown an uncomfortable pattern – one of apparent decline.
If I’d seen the rank of 73rd among 80 analysed UK universities, the result wouldn’t have inspired me
National rankings paint a bleak portrait of Nottingham’s academic standards. In Complete’s recently published 2023 ranking, they fell to 25th in the UK, outranked by several newer universities. And The Guardian’s table pulled few punches, placing them only 63rd, one place behind neighbouring Nottingham Trent University, a harsh sting for an institution formerly considered so selective and rigorous. For perspective, in just 2019, both The Guardian and Complete had them at 17th. Nationally, the outlook appears negative for prospective applicants weighing up their UCAS choices, not least because of another area of disappointment, in the HUMEN mental health league table. This wasn’t one I’d known of when I applied, but if I’d seen the rank of 73rd among 80 analysed UK universities, the result wouldn’t have inspired me.
International rankings were somewhat more favourable to Nottingham this year, THE placed them 18th in the UK, as did QS, with Shanghai also awarding them 9th-16th in their latest list. And across all three, Nottingham was comfortably in the global top 150. While there was some falling, from as high as 13th in 2012 according to the QS tables, the wider picture of decline here is less clear. On the contrary, in that time frame, we rose from 21st on THE. The trend, however, remains downward.
The global outlook of the university remains strong, giving it a unique position as a bridge between the UK and the world for students
But what do all these numbers and placements mean, and why should we consult league tables in the first place? It’s important not to forget that each list judges different qualities, with different priorities. Complete, for example, regards entry standards, research, and graduate prospects highly, but The Guardian’s includes a lot more data from student satisfaction surveys, and create their own score based on whether students’ academic performance increases once they attend their respective university using their previous A-level grades.
The international rankings, on the other hand, have a focus on research, industry income, and reputations from academics. There are overlaps between all, but each are useful for a purpose. A student may rightly decide from one ranking that they may be happier in another institution, or from another that a specific university is respectable, or the most beneficial to their career.
Student satisfaction results from the University may have failed to keep pace with well being initiatives across the country, with the stagnation contributing to dissatisfaction and a corresponding decrease in ratings. Further still, the nature and challenges of managing international campuses could equally have prevented enough investment into raising the metrics that matter most to league tables. But the global outlook of the University remains strong, giving it a unique position as a bridge between the UK and the world for students.
They represent only a summary of certain factors, and without context should not be used to judge any institution too harshly
They have hardly shied away from domestic investments either, having acquired the centrally situated Castle Meadow site in Nottingham last year, with the intention of opening a campus with new facilities for students and departments, not least among which may be a location for the Nottingham University Business School, and a space for employers to engage with students. The University doubtless hopes these will generate high returns. In some areas, Nottingham has certainly fallen behind, but in others they are looking ahead. Time will tell how investments will serve the University in the future.
If we take anything from this, I believe that it is a mistake to fixate on the surface number or placement in league tables. After all, they represent only a summary of certain factors, and without context should not be used to judge any institution too harshly. Has a low-ranked university become worse through falling in the tables? In some ways, of course, but the number alone doesn’t say enough. Through checking and comparing multiple lists, examining what constitutes each ranking, and considering why that’s important, students can be better informed about whether a course or university is right for them.
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