Lists

Read this in conjunction with Choosing 2


For various reasons, Chinese students and their families are fixated on entry to a ‘famous’ university. This is a great pity, as immediately a very large number of excellent courses of study are being rejected in favour of fulfilling a dream that is not properly conceived (so dream is the right word, for once).

The perception is that only attendance at a ‘famous’ university will be acceptable (recognised) on return to China. Given that there are 3000 universities in the US alone the number automatically rejected as not famous (and not infamous either) is large. How many universities are famous? How do you discover which universities are considered famous?

Many families working on this strangely constructed problem take to the internet and go hunting for lists of universities, usually beginning with “what is the best?”. It is curious, then, that not one of the Chinese universities exists in any of the lists they are looking to rely upon. This is a stern test of the whole concept of western teaching in the East: one of the strongest tenets is that you must think for yourself—so, assuming you have already fallen into the trap of looking at lists, ask these questions as you begin:

Who made this list?

What does it say it represents?

What information was it based upon?

Is it relevant to my search?

Who is this list aimed at?


This essay looks at lists as they were constructed in 2007 and made available in 2008.

Just to get your eye in, as it were, look at this list of universities in China. I produce two because they are different, they are equally easy to find and there is no easy way to answer the questions I posed above:


1   Tsinghua University                            1   The University of Hong Kong

2   Peking University                                 2    Peking University

3   Fudan University                                  3   The Chinese University of Hong Kong

3   Nanjing University                               4   Tsinghua University

5   Zhejiang University                             5    The Hong Kong University of Science and Tech

6   U of Science & Tech of China             6    Fudan University

7   Shanghai Jiao Tong University        7    Nanjing University

8   Beijing Normal University                 8    City University of Hong Kong

9   Renmin University of China              9    University of Science and Technology of China

10   Nan'kai University                          10    Shanghai Jiao Tong University

10   Zhongshan University


According to netbig.com, 2007:               The Times Higher Education Supplement, 2007


What establishes a name in this list? Is it a list of good eating facilities? Awards for student accommodation? Why do you assume anything at all about this list? Even if the lists does refer to the same values that you are searching to compare, what are the changes since last year (so who has improved)?


Here are three lists from Britain for the same year (and hard to format as I would like):

Cambridge

Oxford

LSE

Imperial

UCL

Warwick

York

Durham

Bristol

St Andrews

Bath

Nottingham

King’s

Edinburgh

Manchester

Southampton

Loughborough

Exeter

East Anglia

Sheffield

Lancaster

SOAS

Cardiff

Leicester

Royal Hollway

Newcastle

Sussex

Birmingham

Leeds

Glasgow

Liverpool

QMC

Aston

Reading

Aberdeen

Essex

Queen’s Belfast

Hull

Dundee

Surrey


UK LEAGUE TABLE (Sunday Times)

Oxford

Cambridge

Imperial

LSE

UCL

Loughborough

Bristol

Warwick

Bath

Durham

Edinburgh

Royal Holloway

Aston

Nottingham

York

Cardiff

King’s

Leicester

SOAS

St Andrews

Lancaster

Southampton

East Anglia

Sheffield

Newcastle

Manchester

Sussex

Exeter

Glasgow

Essex

Reading

Queen’s Belfast

Birmingham

Kent

95.3        Oxford

91.9        Cambridge

82.3         Imperial

79.4        St Andrews

79.2         UCL

78.5        LSE

75.2        Edinburgh

75.1        Warwick

73.5        Bath

73.5        Loughborough

71.6        SOAS

70.6        King’s

69.6        Southampton

68.9        Bristol

68.7        York

68.2        Manchester

67.6        Durham

67.5        Birmingham

67.3        Nottingham

67.1        Leeds

        Leicester

        Cardiff

        Lancaster

        Sussex

        Surrey

        Aberdeen

        Sheffield

        City

        Queen’s Belfast

65.4        Aston

64.4        Strathclyde         

64.1         Glasgow

63.6        Dundee

63.2        Exeter

62.9         Plymouth

62.7         Liverpool

62.4         Royal Holloway

62.1      Stirling

62.0        Reading

62.0        Robert Gordon

61.8        Newcastle

61.7        Queen Mary

61.3        Bradford

61.3        Essex

60.5        Glasgow Caledonian

60.4        UEA

60.2        Heriot-Watt

60.1        Bournemouth

60.0        Kent

59.2        Brunel




Ok, what do these say? Why do you automatically trust the third one more? Why do the numbers make a difference? How was any of the information collected, ranked or published? Why have you (already, I suspect) made judgements from this list?



Here’s the Top Five from 2007, a well advertised list. These eight featured in the top five from 2005 to 2008:

Open [OU]               St Andrews                 City                             East Anglia [UEA] 

Loughborough         Hull                             Lancaster                    Leicester



So where did this list come from and why is it so different? Well, this one is a “student satisfaction survey” and you are invited to discover who compiled it. Questions I wanted answered included: How many universities were included?; How well controlled were the responses? How were they collected? Yet Hull advertised this result on all its literature in 2008 (as well they might, having been in the top five of this list since its inception). They are right, too; their students do appreciate the facilities and the teaching.

Do you get my point? Who says the list you are looking at is the slightest bit relevant to the question you are trying to answer?


Some of the suppliers of information go a good deal further towards answering that question—or appear to. However, once you start to ask questions, you cannot stop: I found it easy to find two different lists for any country I investigated, surprisingly different.

The terms used are not uniform: just why are you already fixated on a ‘Master’s’? Could it be that you have been looking at the US, where a first degree is quite different from a first degree from a British university? Have you in any sense been comparing like with like? Is an MSc from Cambridge the same as an MA? Why do you think so? (They aren’t; you have to stay and do some work for one of them—find out which yourself.) Is a BEng from Imperial an achievement (yes, but  not the way you might think, because you’ve almost certainly been dropped down from the MEng course, so it is quite rare, a bit like a fourth class degree). In short, you need to research your courses and universities carefully and not be misled by other would-be students who have done significantly less work than yourself.


In the end, all this (that you discover and hear and read) is only opinion, and you will only prove that you, too, are easily swayed by the unfounded opinion of others (and the carefully collected data that you can’t properly understand because you can’t answer my questions). How few people ever study at more than one university? Even for those that do, how can they justifiably compare the two experiences in a way that justifies any measure of ‘better’? It is entirely subjective.

Which means that, in the short term, the measure of ‘famous’ is as good and as bad a measure as all the others. If by famous you really mean has someone else heard of it (in a good way) then I suggest that you start practising ways of explaining just how good Hull is (“It was a top five university all the time I was there”) since very few people go to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and M.I.T.

You might also recognise that, if you go to the States and intend to study for a Master’s degree, you would be much better off getting a good degree from a lesser university and then going to a better one (meaning better recognised, a more ‘famous’ name) than the other way around. It must be better to rise up the scales as you progress than to sink toward obscurity. The same applies elsewhere, of course.


If you research UCAS, the Good University Guide, the Times and Sunday Times lists and those form the Guardian newspaper, you will have a feel for what is rated, but still not why. Many of the lists are based on research income (how does that affect your undergraduate career?). There is a heavy bias right now in the UK as large sums of money are expended on research to improve GB’s chances of success in the 2012 Olympics. I found some lists I thought useful when I searched for lists that compare universities by course subject. I like these lists, if only because they are different. However, I note that Oxford and Cambridge often feature at the very top of lists with titles that the two universities don’t actually offer (!!) —so how does this happen? What does the list represent? Are you confusing undergraduate courses with post-graduate? [Probably, is the answer].


Here’s a horrible thought, offered to me by a Chinese student studying in Britain: how is it that there appears to be a significant correlation between the change of position in the (whichever) list and the change in attendance by foreign students? A rise in position seems to relate directly to a fall in numbers. Remember, foreign students present a significant income to universities, in whichever country you explore. A scary thought for Chinese; the university rises and apparently, foreign students flock to it, with the result that the position falls.


There are many gems of courses out there; places you haven’t heard of and some truly star courses. Examples: Journalism at Bournemouth; Engineering Maths at Bristol; Theatre Studies at Lancaster. Each of those is well worth taking in preference to a place at Oxbridge—and people do. I’d like to hear of the US equivalents—I am certain they exist.



In the end, you make up your own mind and live with the decision, making the best of the university you go to. That is the best advice of all, for wherever you go, you will be there for long enough to have little excuse for not doing the best you can while you are there.



DJS 20080930

edited a little 20120513

 

© David Scoins 2017