Oxford has come first in the THE World Rankings, but we shouldn’t get carried away

My initial reaction to the news that Oxford had topped the Timed Higher Education World University Rankings was a thoroughly mature one. Punching the air and proudly texting my parents, “Look, I’m so clever”, and the subsequent embarrassed retraction, “But if I’m there, Oxford surely can’t be that great”, are clearly indicative of a great mind at work. On a more serious note, however, my own response to the news planted various thoughts on the nature of university rankings in my mind.

The danger of attempting to quantify the value of a university is that it can help to foster a culture of mindless academia – a seeming paradox that I have nonetheless witnessed throughout my teenage years abroad – that cemented my decision not to pursue my further education back home in Japan. In Japan, universities and subjects of study are too often chosen on the basis of their ‘prestige’; for the most part, it is not genuine interest that motivates university choice. Success, much more so than in the UK, is based merely on how far up a ranking students managed to land themselves rather than their happiness or academic prowess at the university.

That being said, I would be lying if I asserted that my decision to attend Oxford was made completely independently of rankings. However, my decision was also influenced by factors such as its college system, the tutorial system, the mesmerising grandeur of the spiraling turrets, and even its relative proximity to Heathrow – surely none of which are reflected in the rankings.

Each person thrives in a different environment – to argue that one university is ‘superior’ to the other seems somewhat trivial when it is ultimately a matter of compatibility.

The criteria included in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are weighted as follows: 30% teaching, 30% research, 30% citations, 7.5% international outlook, and 2.5% industry income. Furthermore, within each criterion are further various factors which are taken into account; for instance, that 30% ‘teaching’ consists of 15% reputation survey, 4.5% staff-to-student ratio, and a myriad of other factors weighted differently.

Whilst Oxford may have topped the charts under these criteria, the Center for World University Rankings places Oxford at fifth place. With a 25% weighting placed on ‘quality of education’, its evaluation methodology may not seem to differ significantly from that of the Times; however, this is measured by the relative population of a university’s alumni who have won eminent international awards, a factor apparently not even taken into account in the THE World University Rankings. Similarly, whereas citations (the frequency with which a scholar’s work was cited by others ) comprise 30% of the criteria for the THE World University Rankings, the CWUR only involves it in 5% of the decision-making process. Oxford is not ‘objectively’ the ‘top’ university in the world (whatever I may think); rankings are subjective, mere reflections of values considered significant by certain groups of people.

Nevertheless, in spite of assessing universities based on varying criteria, the separate rankings do not look vastly dissimilar, with Oxbridge and the Ivy League universities ranked highly, perhaps bearing testimony to the idea that rankings can to some extent serve as a useful measure for comparing universities.

However, to quantify the value of a university is to disregard its various attributes; how do you compare a university that teaches its students through tutorials with one that does so through larger classes? Each person thrives in a different environment – to argue that one university is ‘superior’ to the other seems somewhat trivial when it is ultimately a matter of compatibility. To rank them, to suggest that one is perhaps ‘better’ than another, could be to encourage an atmosphere of unhealthy competition, in which students are pressured into pursuing so-called ‘top’ universities rather than environments which they are better suited to.

In that sense, the Facebook statuses boasting Oxford – again, bearing in mind my immediate reaction to the news was childish whooping – seem almost silly.

Rankings are a good place to start perhaps, but one must remember that they really are not the be all and end all of universities; at the risk of sounding somewhat patronising, I remind the reader that there is so much more to a university than a mere number.