Are league tables essential when choosing where to study?

Amid a welter of varied sources of course information, Kate Hilpern looks at how to use indices to your advantage

No self-respecting undergraduate chooses their course provider without at least a peek at the National Student Survey, and often the latest league tables and college and university assessments. The problem for postgraduates is that the landscape is much more complicated. Such sources of information are at best confusing and at worst misleading. So what's the solution?

"League tables are tempting, because they provide simple information in a simple format," admits Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at Hecsu (Higher Education Careers Services Unit). "But at postgraduate level, it's very difficult to capture the essence of the best institution for you in any kind of table. If, for example, you want to do a doctorate in a certain area of crystallography, your ultimate priority should be working with the best people in your field – in this case, perhaps the only people in your field – and no national table can tell you that. The only way to find out is to ask the people working within that field and look at relevant papers and research. Similarly, if you want to do a taught Masters in sociology, a particular university may have the best sociology department in the country, but if they're not teaching those aspects of the subject that you're interested in, it's not terribly helpful."

A further problem with league tables – which come from a variety of official and unofficial sources – is that they quickly become outdated, adds Ball. "It only takes one department staff member to jump ship, get ill or go on sabbatical, and the research profile of the department can change dramatically."

Nick Spenceley, deputy principal of Harlow College, adds that just because a university or college is low down in the league table, it doesn't mean they have low aspirations or can't meet your needs better than those higher up. "We seek to be inclusive, for example, so our student population is not what you might expect. But for someone without a traditional education, the style of our teaching might be exactly what they require to excel."

Institutional assessments also come with risks, cautions Ball. "These tend to tear apart a department, and give detailed reports of their strengths and weaknesses. So, on the surface they look fantastically helpful for postgraduates and, in some instances, they may be. But more often than not, the report was done some time ago, and the whole point of them is to help institutions improve in certain areas, with the result that an area of weakness outlined by an assessment may well be an area the college or university excels in a year or two down the line."

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says some recruiters have misgivings about these indices, too. "We know that the reputation of educational institutions does matter to employers, and, because many of them are taking on postgraduates for the first time – due to an increasingly competitive marketplace – some are turning to league tables and institutional assessments themselves for clues. But others are dismissive of them. Our advice to recruiters is to use them as only one of their search criteria, at the very most. In fact, I suspect that, as recruiters take on more and more postgraduates, they will increasingly turn to other sources of information, based on what other recruiters are doing and which educational institutions they have links with."

One way in which students can use such indices to their advantage, says Gilleard, is to quiz colleges and universities about what they find. "What you're hoping to embark on is a course focusing on in-depth research. This is a good way to show off some of your research skills at interview. Ask the college why they think they only appear number 29 on the list, or what they have done to improve some of the weaknesses illustrated in a particular report."

There's another option – finding out the source of the information used in such tables. "It's definitely worth students looking at our reports, which will tell them things like how well postgraduate students are looked after at a particular institution," says Stephen Jackson, director of reviews at the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). "What it won't tell them, however, is how an archaeology student's experience at one university compares to an archaeology student's at another. There isn't that kind of direct comparison. But if they want to know the extent to which students are engaged in teaching support, what opportunities there are for postgraduate development and so on, it can be genuinely helpful."

Although each postgraduate department is only assessed once every six years, he says students should not view it as a snapshot in time. "We provide comment on how seriously postgraduate activity is managed by the institution, so it's of continuing value."

Similarly, Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) publishes information on the quality of research coming out of individual institutions – information that, when called upon for league tables, appears in a more generalised way. Don't take too much notice about how much funding universities get, though, cautions spokesperson Philip Walker. "Larger institutions get more money, because there's a fixed amount per student. Also, universities with a big science faculty are bound to need lots more facilities than those specialising in humanities subjects. So just because a particular institution doesn't get much funding doesn't mean it's not good. It might just be it's very specialist and doesn't need much kit for its subjects."

Among the things league tables and other assessments will not tell you is anything about the university's mission or its culture. The good news here is that a growing number of alternative educational institution guides – usually student-led – can act as a useful pointer.

Nor will you learn anything about industry experience. Mike Lucas, associate dean of the Open University Business School, explains: "The majority of league table criteria are too rigid to accommodate for the Open University's method of delivery. Our MBA course material, for example, brings together academic learning with experience from various industries, but this isn't something that can be captured in a table."

The bottom line is that, whilst one postgraduate student might need a local university that delivers part-time or distance learning that they can integrate with a paid job, another might not mind where they study provided the institution has the best possible science labs with the latest equipment available in their specialist area. And while another might want to work with one particular academic, another might only want a course with a proven track record of employability so that they know their course will give them a step up the career ladder.

"There is a vast difference between a part-time postgraduate student undertaking a course required for entry to a professional career, and one seeking to push the boundaries of knowledge in an area of academic research," confirms Professor Dave Phoenix, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire.

If there's one thing all postgraduate hopefuls should find out about, it's library facilities. Impossible to capture in graphs and tables, they can be analysed by a short visit. "You will use libraries in a way you never did at undergraduate level, so you need to make sure it's well stocked with reference books, international publications and perhaps most importantly the journals you need," says Ball. "It sounds a small thing, but one of the most frustrating things for a postgraduate is starting a research project and finding a regular journal they need isn't taken by their university."

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