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29th Sep 2015

When it comes to rankings, students really want to know about employment

In the 2015/16 QS World University Rankings announced earlier this month, American universities command ten of the top 20 places compared to five British universities, two Singaporean universities, and one Australian university. QS’s latest rankings reflect a new weighting designed to give universities comprising a wide range of subjects the same footing as research universities. American universities fared better than British institutions as a result, and, importantly, prospective students will for the first time see Singaporean universities take their place alongside those from the US and UK in the Top 20. Meanwhile, in the most recent Shanghai rankings (formally, the Academic Ranking of World Universities), there are 16 American and three British universities as well as one Swiss university in the Top 20. Singaporean universities are not to be found in the Top 20 of the Shanghai tables. The discrepancy - and more of the same through the Top 50, 100, and 500 - is explained by the fact that each system reflects a different methodology. As a result, each prioritises different measures of a university’s merit and global significance. But do the main ranking systems’ measures - and how they are weighted - reflect the priorities of students? Perhaps not enough, according to a new QS study, How Do Students Use Rankings? The study finds that:

"There is significant demand for rankings to extend beyond current indicators, facilitating more in-depth university comparisons."

A main goal of the study was to arrive at "an image of what a student-created ranking might look like." Hint: it would prioritise the employment prospects associated with a university far more than current ranking systems do today. The QS study is based on a series of 11 focus groups held in London, Paris, Milan, Rome and Moscow, and supplemented by a short survey which drew a further 519 responses.

Wanted: top-ranked university on resumé

The QS study finds that among a list of nine rankings indicators presented to students - some currently included in the QS rankings and some not - the indicators that matter most relate to employment. Half (50%) of responding students chose "employer reputation" as "most important" and 47% chose "employment rate." In comparison, 28% chose research, 16% chose academic reputation, and 10% chose faculty-to-student ratio. Similarly, responding students were most likely to say that the top benefit of graduating from an internationally recognised institution was better employment prospects (selected by 62%) - ahead of better quality of education (34%). The QS research echoes a recent Hobson’s survey that found that 90% of prospective students consider "improving future earning potential" to be "highly important, very important or important" in their thinking about higher education. "Getting a job when I graduate" was equally weighted by prospective students, with 90% citing it again as a key consideration in their decision-making for higher education.

In their own words

QS held focus groups to supplement their quantitative research, and here again, prospective students impressed the importance of future employment – and their desire to find universities that could increase their chances of securing the job they want. Four indicative quotes from focus group respondents are:

  • "With some subjects, whether or not graduates are employed matters more than how good academically the institution is."
  • "The name is really the most important, because then you have it on your CV."
  • "I’ve definitely chosen the ranking over my subject. I really want to go to Imperial just because of the rankings, and [to make that possible] I’ve chosen a subject that I’m less interested in… because of the employment rate after."
  • "Universities often have banners of their most prominent professors; what they should have however is banners of their most prominent alumni."

The conclusion of QS’s How Do Students Use Rankings notes:

"One of the most consistent trends throughout the project is the association of rankings with employer reputation and employment prospects. Students already value rankings for this reason, but we found demand for additional data - particularly based on employment rates. For universities, this is further confirmation of the importance of employment outcomes for today’s students, with implications for both service provision and marketing messages."

Putting the focus on career outcomes

Perhaps the most immediate takeaway for all universities - whether ranked or not - is how important it is in marketing (e.g., website, social media, brochures, and at educational fairs) to highlight:

  1. Employment rates after graduation;
  2. A programme’s links to its relevant industry or professional fields;
  3. Successful alumni.

LinkedIn certainly had their finger on the pulse of the student market when, in mid-2013, they rolled out new services targeted to high-school and university-aged students with their University Pages - essentially, detailed institutional profiles and social channels within the LinkedIn platform. LinkedIn followed this with a suite of new school selection services in late-2014, including its own outcome-based University Rankings. The LinkedIn table is an important global ranking in its own right and is based on the schools that graduate the most students who then find jobs in what are considered “desirable” companies. As LinkedIn puts it, "The sole criteria we use to score universities for a career is: ‘the likelihood of relevant graduates from that school landing desirable jobs in that career’." When a university does well in the LinkedIn scheme, this suggests that it is taking care to design its programmes for maximum employability post-graduation, and that it likely has good support services geared at helping students find their way into desirable jobs. Wired magazine said at the launch of the rankings, "LinkedIn this month dropped the equivalent of a billion metric tons of carbon into the higher education ecosystem. You may not notice it at first, but over time it’s going to have massive impact…It’s a huge deal because it brings radical transparency to what has always been a painfully opaque process of choosing a college that might best set one up for a desired career path."

Internships also an indicator

Successful and effective internship programmes are another signal of an institution’s connection to - and profile among - prospective employers. Needless to say, the availability of high-quality internship opportunities can be an important factor in student decision-making, particularly for students who are looking for chances to build professional networks during their studies. For examples of universities investing in internships as a way of boosting the reputation of their institutions, please see our previous post, "International internships are increasingly valued by employers."

The students’ view

The QS study reinforces that, from a student’s perspective, university rankings are a basis for shortlisting institutions for consideration, checking institutional reputation, or, in some cases, as a tool for comparing one institution with another. However, QS also clearly establishes that employability was a dominant factor for its study respondents and puts it simply that, "A large proportion of prospective students are strongly motivated by future employment prospects when choosing a university, and they commonly approach rankings as a way of assessing this. While students are divided on the issue of whether subject-specific or overall rankings provide the best gauge of employer perspective, they overwhelmingly agree on this basic correlation between rankings and employability." For more on the study’s findings, please download the complete report or consult the summary infographic below. how-do-students-use-rankings

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