Imperial is regularly declared one of the best universities in the world. The latest Guardian university league tables reaffirms this, placing us in joint 6th place overall. Imperial ranked top in Earth and Marine Sciences, Civil Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and Engineering (general).
Physics however was a different story. Last year, Physics retained its place in 8th position. The 2018 rankings see it plummet to 30th. Why have we fallen so far so fast? Statistics provided by the Guardian over the past three years don’t make for happy reading. The overall score awarded to Imperial fell from 86.3 out of 100 in 2017 to a lowly 57.2 this year. Scores are calculated from a range of metrics, largely taken from the National Student Survey (NSS), which measure not only what benefits graduates gain but also how much the university puts into the course.
The Department of Physics has maintained expenditure per student and the student:staff ratio has remained reasonably steady at 11.0. Yet overall satisfaction has dropped for the second year in a row, from 86% in 2017 to just 68% this year. This seems more an effect of exams and coursework (assessment satisfaction has dropped 20 percentage points to 42%) and less a result of poor teaching quality — teaching satisfaction is only down seven percentage points at 82%.
Strong teaching may be why achieving a 1st or 2:1 is considered slightly easier now. That’s according to the ‘value-added’ score, which has fallen to 4⁄10. This piece of “sophisticated indexing methodology” measures how difficult it is for students to graduate with good degrees based on their entry qualifications. A low value-added score indicates it is easier to get that all-essential 2:1 or above. It’s unclear whether this year’s lower score is a positive or negative thing — a higher number of students achieving a good degree could have a devaluing effect. Concerns among students that their degree might be perceived as worth less are mitigated by doubts that employers have sufficient knowledge to compare the difficulty of completing a Physics degree at different institutions.
Currently the Guardian league table indicates 85% of physicists find graduate-level work or further study after six months. Yet students remain optimistic, hoping the transferable skills they gain will be viewed well and boost their career prospects.
Whether the results are fair or accurate is a different story. “It strikes me that [the rankings] are more a measure of how much students enjoyed the course rather than how good the course is academically,” says first-year Cameron Hughes, though he adds that “generally satisfaction isn’t great, particularly for feedback.”
What about College’s own league table analysis? It is keen to note that unlike other domestic league tables, the Guardian dismisses research-related metrics as unimportant. Imperial disagrees, implying we would rank higher had these measurements been included. In the spirit of intercollegiate rivalry, the analysis highlights where Imperial has beaten Cambridge, Oxford and UCL. What it neglects to mention is UCL didn’t just rank more highly than Imperial in Physics — they replaced us at 8th position. Talk about adding insult to injury. Speaking to Professor Jordan Nash, Head of the Department of Physics, it seems the rankings weren’t a surprise. NSS results have been available from the start of the year and a rankings drop was anticipated.
“We have been changing how our course is delivered,” Professor Nash explained. These changes in response to previous student feedback mean last year’s cohort were probably subject to more disruption than other years. The department has “taken very seriously the results of the NSS last year” and been working to implement changes based on “a number of complaints where [the Department of Physics] certainly agree we can do things better.”
The department has examined complaints and identified improvement areas, such as demonstrations and feedback in labs and tutorials. Students say “it feels like our lab reports are marked fairly haphazardly.” Students receive different marks despite writing similar things to their peers and receive contradictory advice. For example, students told to use Harvard referencing in their next lab report were informed they should actually have used Vancouver referencing. To remedy this, further training will be provided to members of staff involved in labs and tutorials.
Another source of unhappiness was “a small number of errors in exam scripts.” Changes are now being made to the way in which exams are prepared and checked to reduce future errors.
Additionally, extra staff have been taken on to assist with undergraduate administration issues. This includes a new Student Liaison Officer to better support students.
It is not expected the league tables will adversely affect the number of future applicants. There are many other rankings available, all drawn from different data. Imperial ranks very highly in most of these, including on career prospects and the “scientific excellence of the staff”, which are often important considerations of prospective candidates.
Professor Nash assures us that “as a department we certainly don’t think this drop in rankings is a true reflection of the quality of the course we offer, and in talking to our students I also get the impression they don’t feel so negatively about the department.” He is confident results will improve. Next year may see Imperial reclaim its position towards the top of the table.