For the next two days, I’m taking part in a peculiarly British institution (and I’m starting to realize just how many peculiar British institutions there are) called “Clearing”. This is where Universities towards the bottom of the status pecking order here in the UK offer places to students who didn’t get good enough marks to get into Universities towards the top of the pecking order.
To school students who want to go to University—and that’s almost everyone these days it seems—the news about your final school mark is one of the most stressful and crucial moments in their lives. For some it’s good news: they get marks that get into the University of their choice. For others, not so good: they miss the cut-off and have to accept a lower quality University—which is where Clearing comes in. The primary (but not the only) function of Clearing is to allow lower ranked institutions—such as my own, Kingston University London—to offer places to students who missed their first choices.
I had my school leaving experience over 40 years ago, but I still vividly remember my excitement when I got more than enough marks to go to my institution of choice, the University of Sydney—and how my joy was tempered by the reactions of friends who hadn’t been so lucky. So I can understand that students will feel bad when they find they haven’t didn’t make the cut at “OxBridge”, or other top-ranking institutions. They think they’re going to get a lower quality education, because they will have to study in a lower quality institution.
Now, as I sit on the other side of the University process after 25 years as an academic, I’m aware that the situation isn’t quite as black and white as school students think it is. There are certainly some things that the top institutions offer which lower-ranked once simply can’t: great buildings and history for starters. To walk around Cambridge, to see its grand architecture, and to feel drenched in its history, is an amazing experience—something captured rather nicely in the charming UK movie X+Y.
But the quality of the education you get at University depends very much on the individual people you are taught by, and here University rankings are far from a perfect guide. Extremely gifted teachers and researchers can be at lower ranked Universities, for a multitude of reasons from personal preferences to sheer lock-in: a capable person can start in a lower-ranked institution, and find that the “Old Boys Network” locks them out of the higher ranked ones.
In my own field of economics, there is also a paradox at play: in many ways the top universities have become preserves of bad economics, both in content and in teaching quality, while the best education in economics often comes from the lower ranked Universities.
In fact, there’s a case to be made that the better the University is ranked, the worse the education in economics will be. And before you think I’m just flogging my own wares here, consider what the American Economics Association had to say about the way that economics education appeared to be headed in the USA back in 1991:
The Commission’s fear is that graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiots savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues. (“Report of the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics”, American Economic Association 1991)
The graduates of 1991 have become the University lecturers of today, and thanks to them, the trend the report identified at the graduate level has trickled down to undergraduate education at the so-called leading Universities.