Looking Behind University Rankings: Questions You Should be Asking University Admissions Officers

Looking Behind University Rankings: The Questions You Really Should be Asking University Admissions Officers


Looking Behind University Rankings


There are more university rankings today than ever before to help you choose where to study. The rankings published by QS and Times Higher Education are well known and cover ranking by the world, region, nation and degree subjects, amongst other categories. Other university rankings also provide information on specific nations, subject, level or type of degree, issues such as ecological sustainability or student life and may do so in languages other than English.


Most rankings are calculated based on a number of different factors with a relatively common core of categories across most rankings. This core includes Faculty/student ratio, domestic/international student ratio, domestic/international staff ratio, teaching quality, research excellence, reputation, entry standards, completion and graduation honours, graduate employability and institutional wealth.


The university rankings are attractive because they claim to offer an objective way to compare the, sometimes, overwhelming university choices which are available. Indeed, many rankings providers go to great lengths to demonstrate the scientific and objective nature of their methodology and processes.


But the rankings have been subject to criticism for various reasons including claims of flawed methodology, lack of comparable data, subjectivity and concerns that universities are ‘gaming’ the system in order to rise up the rankings. The rankings providers have robustly contested these criticisms.


However, even if we assume the rankings providers are right and their findings are justifiable, a more fundamental question remains: what do the various categories actually mean? For example, a high Faculty to student ratio is presented as an unquestionably good thing in several university rankings. But why and how will that really impact on your own personal experience as a student?


This article will address how the Faculty/Student Ratio might impact on students’ learning experience and the relevance of the Citations & Research Excellence categories, especially to undergraduate students.


The Student/Faculty Ratio


Why is this important to a student’s university experience? The Times Higher Education has reported that “A lower student-to-staff ratio can help students to cultivate closer relationships with their lecturers, have quicker access to essay feedback, and get involved in more interactive seminars and discussions”.


This is certainly true if the student-facing workload of the Faculty is distributed across all staff or if those staff tasked with teaching do not also have heavy research duties.


One of the most significant pressures on Faculties is to produce high-quality, high-volume research outputs. These include research publications, winning research funding and raising the research profile of the University. In some countries, these outputs can determine the public funding allocated to the University.


If there is a low student/Faculty staff ratio overall but a significant proportion of the research-focused professors do little teaching and marking, the low ratio is unlikely to impact positively on students because they will not have access in the classroom to research-active staff and the remainder of the staff will have to take up a greater teaching load.


To understand a University’s Student/Faculty ratio, it might be helpful to raise these questions with Admissions Officers:


  • What percentage of Faculty staff teach undergraduate students and/or postgraduate students?
  • What percentage of research-active staff teach undergraduate/postgraduate students?
  • What percentage of ‘small group’ teaching is delivered by research-active staff?
  • Will a personal tutor from amongst the full-time staff be allocated to me?
  • What opportunities will I have to engage with a wide range of Faculty staff?
  • In what ways will individual staff members be available to me when I need assistance with my studies?
  • How is Faculty members’ time divided between teaching, research and administration?


Reassuring answers might include:


  • Senior staff participate in a range of teaching activities and across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes;
  • The Faculty encourages the positive synergies between teaching and research;
  • At least one member of the Faculty will be your point of contact and know you well enough to be able to write meaningful references for you;
  • Staff don’t ‘teach then disappear’. Staff at all levels of seniority and experience engage in Faculty events relevant to students;
  • The Faculty has policies on ‘open office hours’ or learning platform ‘chat functions’ to ensure students have a reasonable chance to raise concerns and questions about their studies with their teacher outside of the classroom.


Research Excellence/Citations


Some have argued that research excellence has a direct and positive impact on students’ learning experience and the quality of teaching they receive.


Staff who are engaged in cutting-edge research work can share their insights and breakthroughs in the classroom with their students, thus making the course topical, relevant and alive.


However, because “Research …defines universities’ success in global league tables, as well as many national ones” there is today considerable pressure on universities to be able to demonstrate ‘Research Excellence’.


One way to do this is to succeed in the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ (RAE) or ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) type of process which is usually a government-sponsored process, now commonplace in countries around the world, designed to evaluate a University’s research outputs.  


Not only does success indicate prestige for an institution, but, if tied to funding allocation, it becomes essential to the financial health of the institution. A second measure of excellence is the number of times an academic’s publications are cited as being authoritative.


One of the perceived consequences of focusing on Research Excellence is a loss of focus on teaching. In order to address this imbalance, the UK recently introduced the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to monitor teaching quality in UK universities. Interestingly,

“the first TEF this year revealed some surprising results, as some universities that traditionally rank highly ended up with a bronze rating and some of the gold-rated universities are institutions that do not traditionally rank highly in university league tables”


A further consequence of the pressure felt by some academics to publish quickly and at volume has been their decision to leave their University careers, thus diminishing the available pool of experienced Faculty members.


So, whilst a University’s high score in ‘Research Excellence’ and ‘Citations’ can be positive for its students, it is important to probe behind the score to ensure that the University has not sacrificed teaching and student engagement for success in an RAE/REF and that a Faculty is not alienated and burnt-out. Some of the questions raised above about research-active staff teaching students are also relevant here. Other questions you might want to ask include:


  • How does the Faculty/University share its research interests and findings with students?
  • Can students attend Faculty/University research events such as conferences and seminars? Is attendance free of charge or subsidized?
  • If I have to write a dissertation, how much supervision will I receive from a Faculty member who is research-active in that area?
  • Are there any opportunities to work on research-active Faculty members’ projects?
  • As a postgraduate student, will I be expected to work with my supervisor(s) on their research projects? What is your policy on shared credit for published work?
  • How are Faculty promoted: for their research quality and output only or for a combination of teaching and research achievements?


If it is important to you to be in a Faculty where both research and teaching are valued and where Faculty’s research interests inform their teaching, you might want to hear:


  • Research-active staff teach on undergraduate and postgraduate courses in their areas of research activity;
  • Research-related events are advertised and open to students where feasible;
  • The Faculty has a policy in place to approve dissertation topics which fall within the reasonable research expertise of our staff and allocation is made to a supervisor who has a reasonable level of expertise;
  • Student engagement as research assistants for Faculty members is covered by a University policy regarding minimum levels of remuneration, limited hours to safeguard the student’s own studies and transparent attribution of credit for contribution made;
  • The Faculty and University value both teaching and research and the synergy between them and this is reflected in the appointment and promotion procedures.


I hope this is food for thought and that you come back to find out more in the second article which will focus on Teaching Quality!


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Written by
Anne Scully-Hill has been an academic in higher education for more than 25 years. During that time she has worked in London and Hong Kong in 5 star research rated university law faculties. She has been a visiting academic in countries as diverse as Japan, Denmark and Singapore. Anne has been Associate Dean and held various senior Faculty positions with responsibility for admissions, student work placements and internships, professional mentoring programmes, teaching quality, exchange programmes and scholarships. She has published widely in the fields of Public Law and Family Law and is accredited as both a General Mediator and a specialist Family Mediator.

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