University courses: better than Oxbridge

How do you define whether one University course is ‘better’ than another?

Here are the results of an analysis I undertook, for to give The Daily Telegraph a set of courses which could be described as better than Oxbridge.

So what does make one course better than another? It could be the rigour of the academic study, or the quality of teaching, or any number of criteria. For this study, I took the objective measures of employment outcomes: probability of employment at the end of the course, and starting salary. The employment and salary data were averaged over 2 years to reduce the chance of ‘blips’, and to increase the population of students studied.

To be considered, a course had to exist at either Oxford or Cambridge – not necessarily both, as that would have excluded all sciences, since the Natural Science course at Cambridge would not be directly comparable with a ‘single subject’ science course elsewhere. Only first degrees were considered.

The ‘gotchas’ in the analysis were that

  • probability of employment is not a straightforward comparator – some courses have a high number of people choosing to take a second degree.  For some other courses I wondered whether this was a positive choice, or whether further study was the fallback option. Without definitive data on this I decide to concentrate on salary.
  • salary reported is the mean salary amongst respondents to a post-graduation survey. The proportion of students on a course who chose to declare their salaries was unevenly distributed across courses. There was no way to tell whether this distribution was representative. To mitigate this, courses were only reported where a threshold in count and proportion of students declared their salaries.

I would take the survey as it was reported – not definitive, but indicating courses that would definitely be worth a look.

University courses: better than Oxbridge

Big Data – An example of how can it be useful for everyone

Big Data is becoming a fashionable phrase in the world of IT. But what does it mean, and is it useful?

For some people, Big Data is more data than can be processed on a single machine. For others it is the combination of data from more than 1 source. is an example of the 2nd type of Big Data, it combines data from HESA, the official agency holding data on all university entrants – their entry qualifications and outcomes on leaving university – with the ONS Quarterly Labour Force Survey to allow 6th Form pupils to make informed decisions about University courses.

This is the first time these data sources had been combined. One question that had to be answered was whether the combination was valid. Fortunately the 2 organisations did use the same standards to classify degree subjects and to classify the occupations taken in later life. A little work had to be carried out in aggregating the data from the 2 sets to the same levels, and in matching different versions of the standards, but then I tried to find some areas where the data sets met, to see whether they produced comparable results.

I selected employed graduates aged 21-23 from the ONS surveys over a 3 year period, and selected only employed graduates in the same range from the HESA leavers data, then grouped the data by degree subject and career taken, and compared the salaries in the 2 data sets. This showed that the data sets were not exactly matched, but were close enough to accept the data combination.

This data combination then seemed clean enough to power the website, and give students and their advisers reliable information.

The Daily Telegraph presented an extract of this information as part of their university advice.

Big Data – An example of how can it be useful for everyone

Data presentation for web and mobile

I want to compare the design decisions taken in presenting data on a web site, and a mobile app.

The example I am using is

This is a charitable site aimed at Sixth Form students and their advisers, to allow students to make informed decisions about University courses, and the A levels needed for their degree course. It has data for every student at every UK university on:

  • qualifications held by students entering university,
  • degree courses taken,
  • level of degree achieved,

This is combined with sampled data on employment status on leaving – career taken and salary, and the ONS Labour Force Survey, giving sampled employment status and salary over the lifetime.

Some students may know exactly what they want to do in life, and simply need to know how to achieve this – what degree subject and University to choose, and the A levels subjects and grades that will give them the best chance of being accepted onto their chosen course. Many will have no idea of what they want to do, and need to explore the possibilities from their current position.

The web site can make use of large screen area to present a lot of data, and to compare selections. The mobile app needs to present a smaller amount of data in a more task centred way. While it would be ideal to have a common design and code base for the 2 presentations, their constraints were so different that I decided it would be worth having different designs.

With this in mind, the web design shows a chronological flow through the options and outcomes.


The earliest stage of life is at the left, and the outcomes at the right. Users can move in either direction through the pages, trying options, then moving right to see the outcomes, or left to see the requirements, For example, a student may be interested in a degree course in Forensic Science, from this she could move right to the university tab to see the universities offering this course, then further right to see the careers taken by previous graduates in Forensic Science, or she could move left to the Alevel tab to see the A levels required for this course. This design allows users to explore the data from any point in the decision process.

There is a considerable amount of useful information available to users, to indicate previous outcomes of the options selected by user, which is not easily explored – this was too useful to leave out, but too confusing to show on the single browsing (selection) pages, so this is all included in a single summary page on the right. This also makes a useful printable summary page for careers teachers to give students to take away.

The web site had been in use for several months before work started on the mobile app. An app, rather than mobile web site was selected to ensure a responsive experience. Since the target users were not expected to have the latest phones, I could not assume the phone would have a SQLite, or any other database. This limited the amount and structure of data held in the app.

I also had to allow for the limited screen space of low-end phones, and the reputed short attention span of reluctant teenagers.

I set up a few questions that the user had to be able to answer in the minimal number of screens:

  • With my A levels, what can I do?
  • I want Career xxx – what degree do I need?
  • I’m interested in Subject xxx – what can it lead to?
  • What A levels do I need for Subject xxx at University yyy?

This led to a few obvious data presentations – selection lists for each of the main objects (Alevels, Degrees, Universities and Careers), and graphs of answers such as pie charts of degrees taken by students with a selected A level subject.

Adding a few extra links to allow progress between related screens, such as from A levels to Degrees to Careers, led to the final screen structure.

This is a really nice example, of trying to present the same data, for the same users on different platforms. The critical design decision was to use the freer environment of the website to encourage exploration of the data, whilst using a rigorously task focused approach in the more constrained environment of the mobile app.

Data presentation for web and mobile