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.

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 final year, so the results may be artificially inflated.

Entry standards

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.

Staff:student ratio

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 measures 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.

University research

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.

Graduate employment

Universities follow up their graduates six month 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.

University spending

This measure asks how much a university spends of 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 of something which doesn’t bother you, for example a new Computer Science department when you study History.

Subjects

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.

‘Indicators’

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:

Student Life

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.

Modules

League tables don’t show you this 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.

Assessment methods

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.

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