Millions of students start university in high spirits every year in either the Spring or the Autumn semester, in a new place, making new friends, adapting to the environment in- and outside the university but all after a series of decisions and preparation centred round the university they chose all those months ago – one of the first decisions being the selection of the institute itself. So how do you decide? This is never an easy decision because of the numerous factors involved; however, it starts initially with the ranking and reputation of a university. You ask your family, friends, and those who may be presently attending or may have previously attended, or you may visit to a professional career guidance service to seek their help but, ultimately, you will have to decide and push the button yourself.
Here, we help you decode those league and ranking tables and tell why reputation is not the only thing that should factor into your decision.
Prestige and Reputation isn’t above all
Always the first aspect to be evaluated, a university’s prestige is what matters to most people nonetheless. True, for prospective employment opportunities, attending the right university is more important. For example, attending Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, or Oxford will be respected by most employers regardless of the course studied; or knowing that attending Wharton for a MBA will offer plenty of prospects. However, this does not imply that a certain course from, say, a small community college will curtail your future prospects. Eventually, it depends on your ambition, as well as the skills you acquired and how you use them.
The widely respected QS university ranking system considers academic reputation as its largest factor; thus, established universities with a strong brand score higher on their ranking system. Such systems are an unavoidable part of the reputation and brand image of universities, enabling them to attract staff, students, and research investment; university leaders, though cynical of them, always pay attention to their institute’s ranking.
Research Influence and Staff Ratios
Even within the lesser-ranked universities, certain subject departments and research institutes stand out; consider the University of Surrey, UK, which does not rank very highly internationally, despite being a established and respected university nationally. However, it is one of the best universities for Civil Engineering courses in the UK, with a world-leading Space Structures Research Centre. Similarly, large research funding attracts a proportionately large pool of talented lecturers, often those who have worked for a long time within the relevant industry. To gain funding, the research output must be strong and a great emphasis is placed on “citations per faculty” – or how often they are published in academic publications. Linked with this is the academic staff-to-student ratio since a lower staff-student ratio prevents you from being just another number and, just like in school, allows greater contact time with your lecturers.
This is important for both under- and post-graduate students, since you must evaluate whether your course’s parent department is any good: for undergraduates and taught postgraduates, the focus is on the teaching quality; for research postgraduates and doctoral students, it is on the research quality.
Physical and social environment
While the latter is more difficult to define qualitatively, the physical environment plays a huge role: you are spending anywhere between 1-5 years in a new location, depending on your course, so it is best to find out whether the place you will call your second home is actually liveable. Most universities located in the world’s major metropolises are very adaptable: New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and so on are globalised cities, catering to almost all your needs. However, those smaller cities and towns that are not so familiar may seem ‘riskier’ but they have the ability to widen – or even change – your perspective. Linked to the liveability is the social aspect: are the denizens welcoming? Are there enjoyable cultural and recreational activities? Eventually, you must question: “Does the environment excite me?”
Perhaps obvious but factoring in the monetary constraints is significant: can you or your family afford the tuition, the accommodation, and other living expenses you require? Consideration of other factors, besides prestige, also should factor into your spending an exorbitant sum on your education abroad, especially when taking a loan; think of it as an investment: will it pay off? You will not be hired by a company simply based on your graduation from, say, Yale so you must ensure that the learning and skills acquired are actually worth it.
The ‘official’ rankings and such measurements are the characteristics of universities rather than its students, resulting in a list dominated by an élite selection. Specialist and smaller arts-schools or polytechnics will not feature despite their quality, nor will those that emphasize teaching over research. Prioritizing reputation – such is the nature of the QS, and other, rankings – merely highlights those already renowned. Although useful, seeing through the limitations of these rankings facilitates better decision-making regarding your future.