With a plethora of league tables out there, from national and international ones to independent guides, it can feel more than overwhelming having to understand all their intricacies and why they even exist.
1. What do university league tables tell you?
League tables use a number of dimensions to measure how good a university is deemed to be. However, each league table has a different way of measuring these dimensions and places them in different orders of importance, which is why a university may do well in one league table, but not so well in another. This means that it’s important to understand what the league tables tell you and what factors are important to you when looking for a university, so you can use that information to make an informed decision.
What do league tables measure?
Although the precise metrics and weighting used will differ from table to table, the common themes include:
The proportion of graduates with ‘good’ degrees
This is the proportion of students who graduate with either a 2.1 or a first. Currently, approximately 50% of students graduate with a 2.1 and 10% with firsts, however, this depends on the subject area and university. It is thought that knowing how many students graduated with a 2.1 or first indicated that the teaching is good, however, it could also be that the cohort was especially talented or the university is lenient when it comes to marking. Furthermore, universities often encourage students who are not going to gain top grades to leave before the final year, so the results may be artificially inflated.
This is the number of average UCAS points the students in the previous year’s starting cohort gained. It gives you an idea of how competitive the university is and how well students attending the university did in their A-levels. However, entry requirements and average UCAS points can differ quite dramatically. For example, most universities don’t accept General Studies as an A-level, however, it will count towards UCAS points, while students that have more access to extra-curricular activities which offer UCAS points, such as Young Enterprise, and music and drama exams will also finish with a higher number of points.
These figures are useful, however in trying to understand whether a university will accept you based on your predicted A-levels. Some universities may set their entry standards quite low, but take on a cohort who have actually performed very well in their A-Levels; whilst some may set high standards but take on many candidates who miss out.
Although it seems self-explanatory, with a lower staff:student ratio preferable, it doesn’t actually tell you quite as much, as staff may include those who don’t teach undergrads and you might find that much of your teaching is done by PhD students who won’t be counted in this figure. A better measure may include class sizes and the overall size of the department which may give you an indication of the range of different module options available. Both of these can be found in a university’s prospectus.
Whether you think that university research is important depends on your reasons for attending university. If you are looking for a well-taught course where you can learn specific skills that will help you when you come to look for a job, research scores are likely to matter very little, however, they are important if you are looking to stay in academia and want access to the top professors in your field.
Teaching scores and student satisfaction
All graduating students are asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their experience, perhaps the best indicator of what it’s like to study at a university, however, only departments with over 50% completion (which in the case of big departments can mean 100 or more respondents) are included.
Universities follow up with their graduates six months after graduation and ask what they are up to. It can give you an indication of how well received your university is by employers or how well the university set you up for employment whilst an undergrad, but remember that some subjects offer better employment prospects than others.
This measure asks how much a university spends on student facilities. While a high spend means that you’ll have up-to-date facilities, it does mean that the funds will have been diverted from other causes, for example, scholarships. Furthermore, the university might have a high score but have spent all their money on something which doesn’t bother you, for example, a new Computer Science department when you study History.
As well as an overall ranking for a university, you’ll also find ratings for different subject areas – e.g. art and design. These can be a more useful assessment of what you’re likely to encounter as a student and which university might be best for your subject (hence which universities to choose).
What to look out for in league tables?
Objective vs subjective
Statistics collected by outside agencies are generally more neutral, while student feedback can be influenced by all manner of external issues and by personal feelings.
Not all categories are updated every year and therefore won’t indicate what is happening at the university right now. So remember to take the tables with a pinch of salt.
What do league tables not tell you about?
When investigating which university to attend, using league tables is a good starting point, however, there are plenty of things they don’t measure. These include:
Universities such as Manchester, Edinburgh, and Bristol tend to do pretty abysmally in teaching and student satisfaction scores, however, many enjoy the student life these cities and universities have to offer. A visit to the university – and even a night out - will help you make a better decision.
League tables don’t show you the ins and outs of the course, which will definitely be a deciding factor. For example, you might choose to study modern languages, but want a course that is culture-focussed rather than languages-focussed. Some universities may also allow you to include courses from other subjects as part of your degree, whilst some offer you a year abroad. Furthermore, even the modules you are able to take will depend on the university you choose, so check a university’s prospectus before applying.
Are you a coursework person or are you an exam person? Universities and subjects use both these methods to varying degrees, but you might like to choose a course’s assessment methods that favour your strengths. Again, these can be found on a university’s prospectus.
2. How do I read the university league tables?
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.
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 of a university with measures including teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook.
QS World University Rankings assess 3,000 universities and give 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: an 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 tends 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
Whatuni.com 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 the 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 the 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 are 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 difference in score can make a big difference in place.
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 a 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.