Photo courtesy of UWE Bristol

By Tiffany Francis

For most students, choosing a university is like online shopping: you view photos and read reviews, but the quality can only really be measured when you’ve already paid.

Obviously, browsing a university website will give you a fair idea of the place, but it’s hardly going to tell you about the drunken physics teacher, or the glorious plague of rats in the gym.

Hence, we welcome the magnificent university league tables. Based upon an annual National Student Survey (NSS), it lists each university in order of student satisfaction. It seems an excellent idea, and with regard to highlighting the best and worst groups, it probably works. But if you’re not applying to Oxford, Cambridge, or as of 2012, the University of Bolton, is it really worth basing your decision on a few points?

When I was applying, I had an excellent system for choosing my place of education. Firstly, I pondered upon which of Britain’s towns and cities looked most appealing to my 17-year-old self. Secondly, I thought it would be best to look at the course specifications. To my delight, Bristol had an 80s bar, and I would be studying Alice in Wonderland: my target was set for UWE.

But something obstructed my path! I decided to check the NSS league table to confirm my decision, and to my horror, the University of Birmingham was ranked higher than UWE. I felt I had no choice but to select Birmingham as my first choice, despite the fact that the course specifications looked terribly bland, and there was no sign of an 80s bar.

Luckily, I had lots of frolics in my second year of college and consequently, I didn’t quite meet the grades for Birmingham. UWE has been wonderful to me and, more importantly, I have often visited the 80s bar. But is it wise that I should have made my final decision based on a few points in a table?

Vice-Chancellor Steve West recently praised UWE for its strong progress in the league tables: entry requirements were raised, and over the last two years it has climbed ten places in the overall ranking. But what exactly has caused this positive change? Individuals rated the IT and Library facilities as outstanding, together with the shopping and social life of Bristol itself. But can a university really be judged on numbers and statistics?

The most damaging factor in these tables seems to be those students who do not embrace university life fully. Those who drop out before completing their degree make an unpleasant dent in the score, yet is it fair for those who do not fully experience the university to have the final say? Blaming it on teaching standards alone is difficult, as large numbers of students simultaneously flourish in the same conditions.

For UWE, it seems the NSS league tables are only working positively for its reputation. Is it just lucky that the survey was completed by happier students this year? Or is it foolish to ignore the voices of former students? For many, the NSS is simply an unbiased way of making a difficult choice. If you ask me, always check for 80s bars before applying.