Posted on 9 Jul '24

How much do Rankings and Reputation affect Postgraduate Audiences?

There are a great many groupings and labels attached to UK universities: Redbrick, Plate Glass, Cathedrals Group, University Alliance, Pre-92, Post-92… Like memberships to exclusive clubs, some signal a commitment to achieving excellence in a particular field, others have more to do with accidents of history, architecture or both. All of them impact an institution's reputation.

Similarly, world rankings are a tool at the disposal of prospective postgraduate students trying to narrow down their options. But just how important are either of these ‘labels’ to that searching audience?

Using our Pulse data (from Q1 2024), we can see that those searching for UK PGT (Masters) listed Reputation and Ranking as the second most important factor when deciding on an institution, behind only Employment outcomes. The UK PGR (PhD) audience, however, listed Reputation and Rankings as by far the most important deciding factor.



The prospective postgraduate audience clearly cares about these ‘markers’ for quality, but does that importance translate to interest? Below, I’m going to look at one of the most well-known UK groupings – the Russell Group – alongside the Times Higher Education World Rankings to see what, if any, effect they have on actively searching postgraduate audiences.

The Russell Group

As those in the sector know, membership of the Russell Group (RG) denotes a commitment to research. These 24 universities are research-intensive and produce 68% of the UK’s ‘world-leading’ research outputs. Unsurprisingly, they also train a large proportion of the UK’s doctoral students.

It’s fair to say, therefore, we might expect RG membership to have a large impact on prospective PGR audiences. However, this may also translate to PGT for those who may be considering research quality, or those who read RG membership as a proxy for overall quality.

So, what can our Pulse and Share of Search data reveal about the true impact of RG membership?

PGT

17% of all UK universities (24 of 142) are members of the Russell Group. In Q1 2024, though, the Russell Group made up 44% of all interest in UK PGT on our platforms (which include some providers who aren’t universities.) This is a huge Share of Search relative to the group's size and indicates, at the very least, that the reputation of its members greatly affects searching audiences.



Interest in Russell Group institutions is slightly higher from domestic audiences than international audiences (48% to 41%). This split in interest is widening. Between Q1 2023 and Q1 2024, domestic interest barely changed, whereas international students became 4% more likely to seek non-RG institutions.

This could suggest that RG designation is more important to domestic audiences, or it could also be related to underlying audience shifts as a result of recent visa changes.



Our Share of Search data shows that, while RG interest from most international regions has remained stable, the South Asian audience has become 24% more likely to seek non-RG UK PGT. That swing could account for the widening gap being domestic and international interest for RG institutions.

PGR

As expected, considering their status as ‘research intensive’ institutions, Russell Group membership seems to play a larger role in attracting PGR interest. 60% of searches for UK PhD opportunities are for RG members, and this has been rising recently. However, at this level there is no noticeable difference between domestic and international audiences.

Interest does vary somewhat between individual international audiences, however:



All international audiences have seen at least some growth in RG interest through 2024, with the largest coming from South Asia (+3%). The international audiences that are most likely to search for RG opportunities are North America, Asia (excluding South Asia) and Europe. The international audience that is most likely to seek PGR opportunities at other institutions is Africa, where only 48% of searches are for RG members.

University rankings

Another tool at prospective students’ disposal are the various university world rankings. Now, clearly world rankings are not a perfect measure of overall quality, particularly at Postgraduate level. However, they are certainly an important factor in decision making for prospective students. Remember, prospective PGR students say they are the most important decision-making factor, while prospective PGT students regard them as the second most important.

Over at FindAMasters and FindAPhD, there are guides available to help students understand the various rankings along with tips for making the most of them.

For simplicity, here we’ll look at the Times Higher Education World Rankings (the only one of the ‘big three’ to include PG-specific metrics) to see what effect they might have on audience interest. For this we have taken all the UK institutions in the most recently published rankings (a total of 105) and measured them against total interest from Q1 2024.

PGT

In UK PGT, overall, we see a loose correlation between ranking and Share of Search, with a correlation coefficient of 0.55.

Correlation coefficient is a figure between 1 and -1 that describes the strength of a relationship between two variables. The closer to 0, the weaker the correlation, and vice versa.

So, a figure of 0.55 signals a moderate relationship between ranking and interest. This particular correlation, however, is very top heavy (the top six ranked institutions account for almost a quarter of the total Share of Search by themselves).



The correlation is still top heavy when we drill down into domestic and international audiences. There is a stronger correlation for domestic audiences (0.59), suggesting that they are slightly more likely to spread their interest across universities, not simply targeting the most well-known and highest rated. This is perhaps to be expected, considering the domestic audience are more likely to be aware of the lower ranked UK institutions.

It's worth noting that the Russell Group occupies the entire top 18 rankings in 2024, and no Russell Group institution is ranked lower than 28th in the UK.

PGR

In PGR there is a much stronger overall correlation between ranking and interest (0.72). It is far less top heavy and there are negligible differences between audiences.



This is perhaps a sign that rankings serve UK universities better in PGR than PGT, helping to spread interest across a wider range of universities and not simply funneling it into most well-renowned institutions.

Correlation vs. causation

As with all data, it’s worth bearing in mind the correlation vs. causation effect, i.e. is the interest that we see here, at least partially, a direct result of rankings or is the correlation simply coincidence.

There is an inherent chicken and egg effect at play. The rankings are more likely to reward the most well-renowned institutions (research performance carries a lot of weight in their algorithm while some specialist institutions are excluded on fairly arbitrary grounds). This then further boosts the reputations of the most famous universities and makes them even more likely to perform well in the following years' rankings (which may contribute to the top-heavy correlation we saw in PGT).

There are other factors that this analysis ignores: supervisors, location, funding options, specialist opportunities, to name but a few. However, the correlations here are strong enough to be worthy of consideration and perhaps instigate a more in-depth, overarching investigation in the future.

Key takeaways

  • Russell Group membership seems to be less important to international PGT audiences, who are increasingly seeking non-RG opportunities.

  • The Russell Group dominates UK PGR interest, and that interest is growing for all audiences.

  • There is a loose, top-heavy correlation between ranking and prospective interest for UK PGT.

  • That correlation is much stronger for UK PGR.


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