University rankings are widespread and commonly referred to: ‘So-and-so University is the best in the country’, or ‘The University of Such-and-such is in the top 10 in the world’, or ‘Blah-de-Blah university is rubbish, it’s lower down the tables’. But do rankings – university ‘league tables’ – really tell you if a university is good, and if it’s better than another one? Do they tell you what you think they do (or what they claim to)?
Rankings are supposed to inform the outside world – students (and/or their parents) and funders – where they should best spend their time and/or money (provided they have a choice). They may also let employers to know where the best graduates are. All of those groups can then choose where they study, where to commission research, or where to recruit from. At the same time, universities can see where their weaknesses are in relation to their competition and take measures to improve. So you get transparency and choice, with competition driving up quality. Brilliant, everyone wins. Or do they?