It’s that time of year when undergraduates who want to continue their studies are busily looking around for advice on which masters degree to apply for and school leavers are pondering their university application preferences. Rather than relying solely on traditional university rankings, many students are turning to innovative rankings that are mining big data to offer extra insight into the employability of graduates from different universities.
Social networking site LinkedIn recently released its own university rankings outlining which degrees get its members the best jobs within certain sectors. This comes after Google released its own list of the “most searched-for” universities in which the Open University, Phoenix and several Indian institutions come to the fore, ahead of some of the other “traditional” destinations.
Will rankings like LinkedIn’s, which seek to measure real economic activity after graduation, rather than bundles of weighted input measures, challenge the stranglehold of traditional university rankings?
New players emerging
In the UK, the LinkedIn ranking covers just five sectors: accounting, finance, investment bankers, marketers and media. It extends to eight sectors in the US with the addition of software developers, developers at start-ups and designers.
A number of interesting and different players appear to emerge towards the top of these tables. In the UK ranking, the London School of Economics tops three of the five tables including the marketing ranking, in which Aston University comes second and Bath third. Leeds tops the media ranking. Accounting, finance and banking have a more traditional feel to their top ten with UCL, Oxford and Cambridge featuring highly.
The rankings are created by mining user profiles to establish a measure of employer attractiveness and relevance based on the patterns of graduate joiners and leavers. It’s possible that the metrics LinkedIn uses may be biased towards dynamic industries and fast-growing careers and might focus attention on big blue-chip companies with large workforces. The penetration of LinkedIn is also not globally consistent and it is not clear how those recent graduates showing more than one university affiliation would be treated.
Importantly, there is no cross-validation of data accuracy, allowing unethical individuals to improve their digital brand and fictionalise their education on the platform. Yet even with some methodological concerns, to my mind, this more meaningful measurement of post-education employability is a welcome addition to the status quo.
How students make choices
In my experience, freshers are often surprisingly unaware about the content of their courses. Many are guided by factors such as employability and student satisfaction. But in the build-up to applying for a masters programme, students are more savvy – perhaps more keen to evaluate the reputation of specific courses rather than universities. Yet there is a particular need to readdress the gap in information for potential masters degree students choosing their next move.
They have some awareness that general institution rankings may not apply to their chosen masters. But there is a significant absence of reference guides for masters-level courses, particularly in the more specialist subjects. The limited reporting that is available sees aggregations of programmes and no rankings. Students looking beyond a general management programme or MBA flounder.
Frankly, traditional university rankings are not very helpful in the postgraduate space, offering at best summary data in an alphabetical list. Data-heavy rankings are very much beholden to the way different factors are weighted in the overall index, with a rather conservatively heavy focus on research. Although university rankings by Times Higher Education and QS use different base calculations, both give a mighty 60% weighting to research prowess and citations in their university rankings.
Yet I suspect students who regularly pass through my office to discuss postgraduate opportunities would put much higher importance on measures of teaching, employability and the learning environment. Encouragingly the National Student Survey appears to be driving more emphasis on elements of the wider student experience for undergraduates. But something similar is needed in the postgraduate space.
Sophisticated rankings for MBA
One key exception is the MBA, which seems to benefit from disproportionate levels of media interest and a range of ranking metrics. The Economist and FT rankings offer a lucrative advertising honey-trap. Perhaps because the MBA is seen as a quality barometer for its host business school, it can benefit from a disproportionate share of promotional resources.
Regular, consistent data collection driven by quality assurance bodies such as AACSB and Equis may enable metrics that measure the cost-effectiveness of a degree here too. But it is important to note that elite rankings can also help distort the marketplace and help the large institutions grow disproportionally. Over-concentration of market power is not always in the customer interest; just look at the Tesco and the UK supermarket oligopoly.
With online editions of student rankings ever more popular, the media are no longer restricted by physical paper space to limit their tables to the top 20 or 100. Interactive data manipulation tools are increasingly prevalent, as is the trend of powerful infographics to help visualise choices.
As employability rises ever higher up the agenda for students, perhaps rankings such as those offered by LinkedIn can offer useful insights for those focused less on research and more on the world of work.