US mania for ranking colleges arrives in Britain

Bruce Hunter hates college rankings. Every fall, the chief college counselor at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's - a private high school in Salt Lake City - stands before his students and tears the ranking pages from his college handbooks.

"Pretentious, money-grabbing nonsense," he says of these publications. "These things do much harm because they don't know the colleges, and their ratings are meaningless. "

Thousands of miles away in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robin McAlpine, a senior official for Universities Scotland - an association of Scottish universities - expresses a similar sentiment.

"League tables [a term borrowed from British sports referring to soccer standings] are not about giving information to parents and students, they are about selling newspapers," he fumes. "Loads of people rush out to buy them when they come out, especially middle-class students. But they are [a] gimmick."

The annual ranking ritual that has been the norm for more than a decade in America is now creeping into Britain. From hospitals to sports to education, competitive lists are captivating Britons much as they gripped their American cousins. Everyone wants his favorite soccer team to be first, and parents want their children at the top university.

The Guardian, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Times Higher Educational Supplement, the Financial Times, and Manchester University Careers Service - the list of publications coming out with their own university "league tables" continues to grow and so does the controversy surrounding them.

Many in higher education now envisage a larger role for the ranking industry, possibly along the lines of the US experience.

As the founding dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and now the head of England's Warwick University, Prof. David Vandelinde, has had experience administering universities in both countries. He says rankings are facts of life in Britain as in America.

"If [these lists] provide useful data, then they are helpful to students and their parents," he says. "On the other hand they can distort information. But I think more people in the UK will pay attention to ranking, because there is more focus on higher education and the growing diversity in British education system."

Education editors insist that despite what the critics say, the rankings provide useful information to students, many of whom are graduating with increasing level of debts.

Average university tuition in Britain today is about £1,000 (US$1,650). However, that amount will triple in the fall of 2006, due to the Higher Education Bill recently passed by Parliament.

A recent study projects that the average British student who goes all the way through university paying the higher tuition will graduate with a debt of about $35,000.

"Going to university has becomes an increasingly economic decision," says Jimmy Leach, an education editor at the Guardian. "Since universities fought off teaching-quality inspections there is no independent judgment as to the quality of education students receive. That's a gap we help fill."

Mr Leach is probably right. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the US is no longer the most-desired destination for thousands of international students. Many British universities are using league tables as part of their marketing and recruitment strategies in a market that is said to be worth $40 billion a year.

And the tactic appears to be working.

Senthil Kumar, a customer relationship manager from India, picked London Business School because it is the highest-ranked business school in Britain.

"I believe it is important to secure an education that is of the highest quality in a world-class school," he says. "The benefits of such an education would easily compensate for the cost."

Some university administrators also admit they use their college position on ranking tables to lure British students as well.

No one can pinpoint exactly how this American phenomenon came to have a British accent. The Sunday Times is one of the publications that first ranked British universities.

Alastair McCall, one of its senior editors, says the Times has been publishing league tables for high schools since the early 1990s but the one for universities began only in 1996.

At the Guardian, says Leach, the paper has developed its own ranking system rather than borrowing too many ideas from the US system.

There are significant differences, say experts, between the ways that publications rank schools in both countries. Like those in the US, UK publications tend to include in their calculations factors like research quality, student-faculty ratios, and graduation rates.

But most don't stray further afield into areas like alumni-giving levels, peer assessments, and the school's selectivity, as do some rankings compiled by US publications.

"Ranking in the US is richer due to the diversity of the data they use and because they've been doing it longer," says Professor Vandelinde. "But ranking publications in the UK are more independent because they give broader image of what is going on."

However, John Clare, the education editor for The Daily Telegraph, Britain's bestselling broadsheet, says he no longer publishes school rankings because there is not enough relevant and reliable information available on which to base them.

For example, he says, the official data based on teaching quality are either out of date or, under the new system, so bland as to be useless.

"By comparison with the US, our principal difficulty is that we have no equivalent of the SAT, which," he points out, "for all their huffing and puffing, is what US publications rely on to underpin their tables."

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