University league tables

League tables of universities and colleges are a common feature of higher education across the world as well as in the UK. Ranking tables can be a helpful source of information if you are applying to study at a university or college. They are, however, far from perfect and, if read uncritically can be misleading. It is certainly worth knowing something about how universities are ranked and how the different league tables compare.

World Rankings

Students, particularly international students who are considering studying in the US or the UK) may look at the World University Rankings. The QS World University Ranking and the THES rankings give an indication of how the UK universities compare to their counterpart institutions around the world. However, students are often puzzled as to why a number of universities that regularly feature in the top ten of British university league tables are surprisingly low down in the worldwide tables. This disparity can be explained by the differences in the methodology and criteria used. The LSE, for example, has stated that ” all of the global rankings suffer from inbuilt biases in favour of large multi-faculty universities with full STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) offerings, and against small, specialist, mainly non-STEM universities such as LSE.” In short, international university rankings include criteria such as the number of citations per faculty and alumni prize winners factors that may be particularly interesting to postgraduate applicants, whereas the UK rankings give most weighting to the undergraduate student experience.

UK Rankings

Three national rankings of universities in the UK are published annually – by The Guardian, The Times/Sunday Times (known as The Good University Guide and by The Complete University Guide. In addition to ranking the universities overall, each guide also looks ranks universities on their strength in individual subjects which can be a more useful indicator of reputation within a particular sector. The quality of an individual degree course may not bear any relation to the overall position of the university in the league tables. Some university courses are very highly regarded even if the university features lower down an overall league table and vice versa.

All the league tables include measures of student satisfaction scores, student to staff ratios, graduate prospects and entry grades but then they start to differ. Always remember that different league tables measure different things and you will need to check whether the table you are looking at actually measures the things you are most interested in. Different tables also assign different weights to the criteria they measure and you should know which of the topics they cover they consider to be more important. For instance, in contrast to the other tables The Guardian does not include any contribution from research rankings, as it believes that research does not help in understanding the typical experience of an undergraduate student. Instead The Guardian gives more weight to student feedback and includes a ‘value added’ factor, which compares students’ degree results with their entry qualifications.

While a consistent performance across a range of league tables can give a reasonable indication of a university’s overall standing in UK higher education it does not mean that a particular institution is the right choice for an individual applicant simply because of its league table position. It is worth remembering that league tables can only ever give you part of the picture.  Contact the UKSO team for more detailed information on rankings and advice on how to choose the right course and university for you.