This week, the Guardian published its annual university league table. The rankings are as bewildering to anyone acquainted with the reality of university reputations as they are misleading to anyone who is not. Should you wish to study Economics, for instance, you are told that you would do better taking an offer from Surrey (4) than LSE (13). If you’re really short of options, then you could settle for a place at Manchester (54) or Newcastle (60). Equally, for an aspiring physicist Leicester (5) or Hertfordshire (6) are deemed superior to Imperial (8) or indeed UCL (12).
This list does not reflect what graduate employers actually think. From an employer’s perspective, the picture is clear and consistent: the Russell Group universities come top, led by Oxbridge and LSE. A degree from the top three will get you into almost any interview room. A degree from Surrey will not. It’s as simple as that and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise. This is not a comment on the individuals graduating from these institutions; it is simply a statement of fact about employers’ perceptions.
Choosing which university to attend is one of the most important decisions a young person will make. Indeed, for an employer, the university is often more important than the degree. National rankings are trusted and relied upon by worried sixth-formers and their parents, so it is essential that they properly equip their audience to make well-informed judgements.
Rather than delve into the surrealist methodology behind the rankings, most prospective undergraduates are liable to take the list at face value. This is especially true for those whose parents are unfamiliar with the widely acknowledged hierarchy. It is therefore the students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, often the first in their family to attend university, who are left to take the Guardian’s rankings literally. Trusting in the newspaper’s reputation and the munificence of its judgement, they are being misinformed at a pivotal moment in their life.
Quite clearly the Guardian is seeking to contest the status quo. But the trouble is, you can’t disrupt an order just by telling people that it doesn’t exist. It’s not progressive, it’s not effective, and it’s potentially very damaging. The Guardian’s disengagement with reality is irresponsible and socially regressive. If you want to help those from all backgrounds, the best thing you can do is to tell it like it is; not for the satisfaction of smug alumni, but to provide honest counsel to those who need it most. For many, higher education represents the single greatest opportunity for social mobility. Contrary to this aspiration, the Guardian’s league table spreads misinformation under the guise of helpful advice. And it is those without the resources to fully appreciate the absurdity of the Guardian‘s claims who are most vulnerable to their fallacy. Let’s hope the target audience doesn’t actually take its league table seriously.
Tom Davenport and Andrew Lavelle are the co-founders of recruitment technology company TalentPool.
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