Cambridge slips down student experience league table

Michael Yoganayagam - Deputy News Editor 24 February 2011

Cambridge’s overall ranking in the Times Higher Education (THE) Student Experience Survey 2011 has fallen to fourth, having been second last year.

This puts Cambridge behind the Universities of East Anglia, Sheffield and Loughborough (who topped the survey overall for the fifth year in a row) in terms of its own students’ assessment of campus life.

Oxford also saw a fall in its ranking – from third last year to sixth this year. The University of Westminster was the worst ranked University in the survey – in fact, all of the bottom 7 institutions are located in London.

THE surveyed over 13,000 full-time undergraduates at 113 UK universities, asking them to rate 21 aspects of university life, both academic and extra-curricular, and all chosen by students, on a seven-point scale. These results were then assigned weights and aggregated to give an overall score for each university.

According to THE, “respondents were not told the purpose of the poll and were unable to complete the survey more than once” in order to prevent students giving unduly high scores, to enhance their own institution’s performance.

Cambridge scored the highest in the academic attributes, with the highest scores nationwide in both “Helpful/interested staff” and “Well-structured courses”. It had the joint-highest score, along with Oxford, in “High quality staff/lectures”, while both were considerably ahead of the rest of the field in “Tuition in small groups”, by virtue of the Oxbridge system of supervisions and tutorials.

However, the 252 Cambridge students surveyed also gave Cambridge the third lowest score for “Good social life” out of the universities in the top 40 of the overall ranking. The University’s sports facilities were also ranked the second worst amongst the top 40.

Other striking areas of poor performance were in the “Good student union” category, where CUSU was the third worst-ranked union in the top 40. However, CUSU pointed out: “The authors have failed to take into account the differences between universities when framing questions for the survey.”

“Criteria such as Students’ Unions, how cheap their bar/shop is, how centralised their facilities are etc. refer to completely different things at different universities, depending on whether that university is collegiate or non-collegiate, campus or non-campus etc.”

More generally, it also condemned the survey as “statistically irrelevant and potentially damaging”. It pointed out: “49 out of the 108 universities surveyed last year moved by 10 places or more in this year’s rankings, with some shifting by as many as 40 places.”

“It is hard to believe that the student experience at more than 46% of the universities involved changes that dramatically year on year.”

In a question about “Fair workload”, Cambridge was the second-worst institution, behind Imperial College, London.

A first year Medic at Downing disagreed with this assessment: “I don’t doubt that the workload is greater here than at other universities but it is not unfair. The University is meant to create a challenging environment for the brightest students, which will ultimately benefit us in the future.”

Sian Williams, a first year Natural Scientist at Clare, was focusing on the positives: “Well at least we’re still beating Oxford”.

Michael Yoganayagam – Deputy News Editor