University Tripadvisor

Time was, you’d check in to a terrible B&B, commit to memory the labyrinthine system of keys, work out where to insert yourself in the bed-sheet lasagne (because no B&Bs had heard of duvets, back in the day), remind yourself what everyone says about people pissing in hotel kettles, and endure the social torture of the universal breakfast room (and breakfast), before duly and politely telling your host it was all wonderful. The you’d go and either head home, or on to another B&B clutching on to the hope that the next place wouldn’t be so bad. Or you’d have to pretend to holiday in the full knowledge you’d have to return for another round of bed-sheet lasagne with the added threat that your host might think, after more than one night, you’re beginning to form something of a lasting relationship. Worse, that you might actually like it there…
That was back in the day of course. Now we have ratings, evaluations, and distributed information. Now we have the internet. We can tell where’s good and where’s bad based on the collective evaluations of our fellow human beings who have suffered and luxuriated to provide a nice neat average score. A little like the TEF? And we also have free market, although at risk of getting all Corbyn on you, I should point out that in reality no markets are really ever totally without some constraint or external influence. For a start, allowing anyone to write in on Tripdavisor means, literally, anyone can write in. Like Jim Davidson and that woman who put cats in bins can submit a rating. And if that isn’t enough to make you start questioning free market economics as well as, perhaps, democracy, the people running the places you visit can write in too (which is a lot of how modern capitalism works, which I’ll say before I go full Corbyn). And if that doesn’t convince you, how about the idea that an average is an average. And literally no one is average. Not enough? You still want me to do this, don’t you? OK then… here’s my review of universities’ tripadvisor ratings and comments. Never say I didn’t warn you; what follows is errant nonsense.

Of course, this does not have the representative accuracy of something like NSS or PTES (although you can argue about completion rates and other borderline nefarious activities undertaken by some institutions on those). So there’s no filter on the 1-star reviews (nor on the 5-stars) and there’s scope for unabated venting from the disgruntled and even dark ops from the competition. But that is the point of trip advisor, isn’t it? Like twitter, facebook and any other social media operation, barring race crimes or unequivocal instances of incitement to violence it is to all extents a truly free market. This unfettered approach to evaluation also throws up one gob-smacking observation: lots of people use the scale the wrong way round. So there are lots of glowing 1-star reviews, and several terrible 5-stars… For example, “LSE is the very best university in the world” gets only 1 star from one commenter, whereas “This university [UCL] is piss poor! Would rather die than study here again” also scores, more understandably, a 1. King’s fairs no better: “this is a kind of scam college in UK , LOL. 1-star”.

You’ll see here and below that I’m restricting my text bits to Russell Group (RG) institutions because I do have a (complex, indeed novel-worthy) life of my own and there around a trillion universities in UK now, not to mention the world. If you don’t see your university, just google it: like me, it won’t be long before you find more fertile and febrile insights in the 1-star comments! At Imperial, “Not only is Imperial a terrible institution and a plague on human civilisation, it censors critics who speak out against it. I wrote multiple reviews here claiming Imperial was not good (albeit in more colourful language) and the HR vultures at Imperial took them down. I WILL NOT BE SILENCED!”  Before we leave London, let’s visit the Mile End Road: “‘Russell Group’ only by name because there are so many things wrong going on around here but will keep it simple. Let’s call it the “student mind breaking alliance” instead” is a 1-star from the Queen Mary (yes, it is RG) pages.

Of course, you get tourists’ comments as well as students,  “The most beautiful scenery in my life. The Cambridge University. Beautiful memories become strength in reality”, and perhaps others with an axe to grind, “This university [Oxford] banned clapping. This is very offensive and opresive [sic] against blind people !!! When will smiling be banned ? Go to uni they said… You’ll be smarter they said… LOL”. Then there are comments from wags you expect are students returning from a night out (that is, out of more than their room): “Okay so I was heading to campus one day and I saw a dog getting eaten by an onion. 1/5 bad dog”.

Evidently it is not just the quality of education but the all-round experience of students that leads to ratings: “University [Nottingham] too big, need to take shuttle service from one point to another. Rain and wet always. Muddy ground dirty my shoes.” That gets a 2-star, but, “Not as good as Nottingham Trent University” gets a 3-star which suggests there are fine margins in the local bragging rites in Sherwood derby games!

No love lost at Leeds University however, where, “Second best university in Leeds” gets just 1-star. And while we’re on the Leeds 1-star reviews, “My mum doesn’t want to right anything – 1-star”. A terse 1-star evaluation of Sheffield rather invites inferences to be made about the grounds for the rating, “beautiful city”, while Kavan’s 1-star, “never been, never will,” isn’t even trying to pretend to evaluate objectively. Completing our RG white rose triumvirate, one suspects York’s (it is RG… yes, I know!) impressive 4.6-star average, peppered with brochure-speak and HE sector buzz words, has at least been visited by someone with marketing experience… Same down in Exeter, although a 1-star does sneak through, “A sad place” (with pictures too).

Before I post a Birmingham 1-star, let me repeat the much-touted fact (yes, FACT!) that it has more canals than Venice and they’ve really made an effort with the Bullring. That aside, “Place look nothing like the pictures, really old and horrible. Check out the ugly tomato plant in the front. Standard of teaching is probably basic as this!” And Bristol? “I went to Sussex it was better.”

Odd goings on in Durham:”By the looks of it this university doesn’t produce very good spy’s!” (sic again), and “Full of high brow retards with a ton of chips on each shoulder. Worst experience of my life and I’ve had a few” which is intriguing and comes from the sort of person who sounds like they ought to reflect on whether they’re generally making the right sort of life choices. And sangfroid evaluations at Liverpool, “My studying experience at University of Liverpool was actually not bad, except for when I was working in room UG04 of Harrison Hughes Building, where there was always a nasty guy giving off very very unpleasant body odour, ruined the air in that office”.

One more sobering observation from scanning all of these: whether it’s accurate or not, it’s hard to escape the impression that several leading universities have a problem with racism. And it is not all, just some. Of course, such pages attract certain types of comment and commenter, but the comments constitute an interesting and public representation of a place. But what we all want, what we always want, is a good old league table to help us all feel better or worse about ourselves.. So here is it is. Surely it’s worth something for the TEF?


Cambridge 4.6
Nottingham 4.6
York 4.6
Glasgow 4.6
LSE 4.5
Oxford 4.5
Sheffield 4.5
Birmingham 4.5
Durham 4.5
Imperial 4.5
Cardiff 4.4
Bristol 4.4
Manchester 4.4
Warwick 4.4
King’s College London 4.3
UCL 4.3
Leeds 4.3
Queen Mary London* 4.3
Newcastle 4.3
Queen’s Belfast 4.3
Edinburgh 4.2
Exeter 4.2
Liverpool 4.2
Southampton** 3.4

*4.3/3.7 depending on campus

** only 10 ratings