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With so many league tables out there nowadays, and since most of them don’t agree with one another, how should you (and should you!) use them about making your decision of where to apply to university? Are they really that useful are they really when it comes to choosing a course?

We suggest that you use university league tables as one source of information. Just because a university is ranked highly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that is the right university for you but knowing approximately where your chosen universities stand and how they perform in certain measures can be useful.

For more information about what league tables measure in general please see our blog What do university league tables tell you?

National league tables

The main national league tables are The Guardian, The Times*, The Sunday Times* and the Complete University Guide(* requires subscription). Each calculates their tables using different criteria and weighting.

They tend to focus on student satisfaction, entry standards, research assessment, graduate prospects, student-staff ratio, good honours, research intensity, academic services spend and facilities spend. However, they vary amongst themselves, for example the Guardian’s league table relies heavily on the student experience while The Times leans more towards facts and figures. That means some complex cross-referencing may be required to get a fuller picture.

International league tables

The World University Rankings (Times Higher Education) offer a comprehensive list of the top universities around the world. It offers a fair and balanced view on a university with measures including teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

QS World University Rankings assess 3,000 universities and gives individual positions to the top 400. The universities are compared in four areas of interest - research, teaching, employability and international outlook. Each area of interest is then assessed against six indicators: academic reputation based on a global survey of academics (40%), employer reputation based on a global survey of graduate employers (10 %), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), international student ratio (5%) and international staff ratio (5%). QS also releases rankings by subject and faculty.

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings focus on what others think and, therefore, the ranking is based on opinions rather than calibrated metrics. Top academics are asked to nominate what they see as the best universities worldwide when it comes to teaching and research. Although not objective, it can be a good measure when you want a gut feeling approach to what makes a good university.

With international league tables, the Russell Group tend to perform better as the measures used to rate the league tables focus on research, international employability and international outlook – all factors Russell Group universities perform better in.

Student-focussed league tables awards the Student Choice university yearly to the university which performs best in its student reviews. Categories include accommodation, city life, clubs and societies, job prospects, courses and lecturers, student union, support, facilities and international. There is also an 'overall' category, which goes towards the title of University of the Year.

Student Experience (Times Higher Education) uses 21 separate measures to assess universities in the UK and is based on the responses of around 15,000 undergraduate students. Measures include: high quality staff/lectures, helpful interested staff, well-structured courses, good social life, good community atmosphere, good environment on campus and high quality facilities.

The National Student Survey asks students at the end of their time at university to complete a survey that details what they like and what could be improved. It aims to help future students by providing information on the quality of courses and encourages institutions to improve student experience. Students answer 23 questions relating to six aspects of the learning experience including teaching on the course, academic support and personal development, plus a question on overall satisfaction.

Reading between the lines

When using university league tables it’s likely you’ll find the same universities performing well, for example Durham and St Andrews. League tables are often bunched together at the top, middle and bottom, so if two universities are five universities apart there’s only a few percentage points between them, and choosing one is more about which one you’d prefer to study at. This is why some universities fluctuate from year to year – a small different in score can make a big difference in placing.

League tables also don’t tell you the whole story. Certain university courses are well regarded by employers in specific career areas, even though the university in question may not be feature too highly. This means that as well as overall rankings you should look at subject-specific rankings, as overall rankings can conceal pockets of excellence, or mediocrity, at a course or department level.

You therefore have to decide which measures are important to you and take your university search from there, as well as using league tables appropriately. Alongside league tables, remember to consider course content and assessment, and whether you like the feel of the university when you attend an open day.