University Teaching Quality: the Truth Behind the League Tables

Image shows rows of red seats in a lecture theatre.

Following the recent rise in tuition fees, UK universities have widely adopted charges at the higher end of the tuition fee spectrum.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that the quality of education on offer would reflect these charges and be of a similar level across the board. Think again. A recent study has shown that the quality of education – and therefore the overall value of the degree – varies greatly from one university to another. Of course, we would all expect Classics at Cambridge to be harder than Media Studies at an ex-polytechnic. But you’d be surprised by how much variation there is in teaching quality even among the country’s top universities.
As we’ve seen in a previous article, there are many ways of deciding which university is right for you, and they’re by no means all academic; the ‘university experience’ offered by different universities, for example, is viewed by many as being of equal importance to the academic aspects of university life. But with the cost of university soaring, the quality of teaching is inevitably coming under increasingly close scrutiny – particularly for the academically gifted, who want to challenge themselves and use their degree to go on to achieve great things. So what are the issues, and how do you go about finding a university that will offer you the high standard of education to which you aspire? Let’s find out.

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What the league tables don’t tell you

Image shows Oxford Brookes' School of Health and Social Care.
It’s worth keeping an open mind about former polytechnics; Oxford Brookes (pictured), once a polytechnic, was ranked above Russell Group members Sheffield University and Queen’s University, Belfast, in the Guardian’s 2014 league table.

Much emphasis is placed on league tables when looking at suitable universities to apply to, and broadly speaking they do offer a decent starting point when it comes to making a list of institutions worthy of further investigation. However, the figures you see on the league tables (combined with similar tuition fees) would suggest that teaching standards are very similar, and might lead one to conclude that a degree from one university is of very similar value to one from another. In fact these figures mask a surprising reality: that students at some top universities are required to work much harder than those at other top universities.
League tables and university prospectuses offer you a bewildering array of statistics, ratios and other figures on graduate employment rates, overall university and course rankings, staff to student ratios, ‘contact hours’ and even what you might have thought were highly subjective aspects such as ‘student satisfaction’. But there’s nothing on how long students actually spend working or on the level of intellectual input required from those precious ‘contact hours’ that students spend with staff.

Image shows the library of Jesus College, Oxford.
The intensive tutorial system sets Oxford and Cambridge apart.

Indeed, contact hours don’t actually bear much relation at all to how hard students actually work. Look at Oxford University, for example. Teaching at Oxford is conducted by the tutorial system, an intensive one-to-one teaching method that sees students involved in intense academic discussion with some of the greatest minds in their field. They must typically research and write two essays a week, tackling huge reading lists and also finding the time for attending lectures, which aren’t even compulsory. During the tutorial, their essay will be picked apart and challenged by the tutor in great detail, with the student required to defend or elaborate on what they’ve written and pursue alternative lines of thought imposed on them by the tutor. A student is unlikely to get away with ‘slacking’ in this context, and great pressure is put on students to push themselves intellectually; they must be incredibly self-motivated to manage a huge workload with very little structured time organised by teaching staff. On paper, however, the only aspect of this demanding education that could register at all could be an hour’s contact time a week. Compare that with another, non-Oxbridge university, which might have ten hours of seminars and lectures a week, and it makes it look as though the quality of education the student receives at the latter is better than at Oxford.

Image shows a lecture theatre at Harvard.
It can be hard to know whether you will receive individual attention or just be a face in the crowd.

However, firstly it is quality and not quantity that counts; the student at Oxford is likely to be getting a much better quality education through the intensive tutorial system and many hours of independent study than the student who is one of a much larger group in a series of seminars in which they can easily hide behind other students and not have to engage their brain much at all. Secondly, what ‘contact time’ doesn’t take into account is the actual amount of studying students do. Contact time with teaching staff is only part of the picture. How many essays are students being set each term? How demanding are the workloads being set, and how many hours do students need to put in outside teaching hours in order to meet the requirements of their course and the expectations being set by tutors?
This information isn’t covered by league tables or prospectuses. Contact time doesn’t really mean anything, as we’ve seen; and ‘student satisfaction’ means even less, because students have different expectations, and want different things from their university experience. While some may be happy to get away with hardly doing any work, others set higher goals for themselves and may be extremely disappointed in the lack of academic rigour they may discover at their chosen university only when it’s too late to turn back. Even the staff to student ratio doesn’t tell you much, because it’s not giving you any details on actual teaching group sizes or how hard staff push students academically.

Huge disparities

Image shows a stack of books with some more books piled around it.
The length of reading lists can be a clue to the rigour of a course, although not always; a relatively short selection of critical works, for instance, may simply suggest that students are expected to find more material independently.

Once you’re at university, and you start comparing notes with school friends who’ve gone to other universities, the disparities in teaching quality that the league tables don’t tell you about – even within the Russell Group – become alarmingly obvious. “You do one essay a term? I do two a week.” Essay workloads and reading lists aren’t present in the league tables, so it’s impossible to ascertain the real intensity (or lack thereof) of a university’s educational offering.
A two-year Student Academic Experience survey of 40,000 students conducted last year by the Higher Education Policy Institute in conjunction with Which? magazine backed up this anecdotal evidence with some hard statistics. They found huge variations in the number of hours students were spending studying. Law students, for example, were spending an average of 21 hours a week studying at some universities, compared with 47 at others, while medical students worked between 32 and 50 hours a week. This will come as a surprise to those who might naturally assume that medicine is an equally challenging course no matter what university you go to. Worse, it’s impossible to tell just from comparing the prospectuses.

So what does this mean?

These figures appear to provide conclusive evidence that we can’t place equal value on all degrees. The huge variations in teaching quality mean that, whether some would like to admit it or not, students from some universities are better educated than those from others. Those who put in more work will naturally achieve a better outcome; as with any situation in life, the amount of work one puts in is surely proportional to the success one enjoys.

Image shows a pair of old-fashioned weighing scales.
It may seem unsatisfying to know that not all degrees are equal – even if they require equal investment of time and money to obtain.

Students who are dissatisfied with the quality of their education can complain to the powers that be, of course; but complaints from students often fall on deaf ears, as universities know that few will go to the trouble of transferring to another university, and even fewer now that the cost of university has risen so sharply that ‘wasting a year’ just isn’t financially viable. What’s more, academics are often more concerned with their research output than with improving the quality of teaching they’re offering undergraduates.

What can you do about it?

Now that we’ve exposed the reality behind those confusing league table rankings and overblown prospectus claims, it’s time to turn to some practical advice to help you choose a university that will provide you with a solid education and encourage you to reach your full potential.

Talk to current students

Image shows two smiling students in what is very obviously a posed stock photo.
Try not to let stock photos of happy students guide your decision; look at practical facts and figures as much as possible.

Whether it’s someone you meet on an open day, someone from a year or two above you at school, or someone you encounter on an internet forum, chatting to current students of the universities you’re interested in applying to is a good way to get an accurate picture of what the academic intensity and workload is really like. The Student Room is a good place to ask questions of current students, as many current undergraduates frequent these forums offering free advice to prospective applicants, and there are individual forums devoted to each university. You’ll get honest answers and a general impression of how happy current students are with the education they’re receiving, in a lot more detail and much more reliably than the quotes you see from students in prospectuses; which, after all, have been carefully selected by the university to portray an impression of students who are ecstatically happy with their university. How do you know the university didn’t just pick the one or two who are, or that their opinion is representative of the majority? Only by talking to real students will you find out the truth.

Talk to the teaching staff

At open days, chat to the teaching staff and quiz them about teaching styles and workloads at their institution. How many essays do they demand from their students each term? What mode does teaching take, and what proportion of time is allotted to lectures, tutorials, seminars or classes? How long are the reading lists? They won’t mind you asking these questions, and it’s better to find out now than when you’ve started the course and it’s too late to change your mind.

Find out what the alumni are up to

While not necessarily directly correlated with the quality of education they received, it’s still interesting to note what the alumni of the university you’re interested in are up to now that they’ve left. Are they securing good jobs, or even becoming famously successful? It’s no coincidence that so many successful public figures went to Oxford or Cambridge, for example.

Scrutinise the courses and staff

Image shows a piece of paper under a magnifying glass.
Ask plenty of questions at open days, in emails or on online forums. A good university will be impressed by students who ask intelligent questions when making important decisions.

Find out as much as you possibly can about what each course entails. Find out what you’ll study and how the course is assessed (that is, what’s the balance between coursework and exams, and when do those exams fall during the course?). Try to get hold of some sample reading lists, and find out as much as you can about the teaching staff and their backgrounds as well. There are bound to be some opinions floating around the internet regarding experiences of studying with particular academics, so a Google search may yield some interesting results. Again, internet forums such as The Student Room are a good source of such information from current students, who’ll be able to share their anecdotes about specific lecturers.
Your choice of university will probably be one of the biggest decisions you’ve made in your life to date, and without meaning to put pressure on you, it’s a choice that has the potential to affect the rest of your life. It will pay dividends if you spend time now on finding out how much value you’re likely to get from a particular university. As we’ve seen, some universities do offer an excellent, intense education; but many more – even those among the Russell Group – aren’t asking much of their students and aren’t challenging them academically. If you’re reading this article, we’re willing to bet that you’re an academically gifted student who wants to be pushed and wants a university experience that will set you on the path to success. Going to university is a big financial investment, and you owe it to yourself and to your future career to make the right decision.


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Image credits: banner; Brookes; library; lecture theatre; pile of books; scales; stock photo; magnifying glass