How to Understand University League Tables

Comparing universities is a tricky business.

For some people, there will be a single measure by which they choose their university. It might be that they want great sports facilities (Loughborough is the obvious choice here) or a renowned Creative Writing programme (UEA). But for others, choosing a university is more about finding the best possible university they can get into, perhaps with a couple of additional factors thrown in. If you’re anticipating grades of, say, AAA, you still face a lot of choice, with options such as York, Manchester, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Leeds, Exeter, Leicester, Bath and plenty more besides. How can you work out which of these universities is actually best for you?

Calculating the best university for you can sometimes feel like an insurmountable task.
Calculating the best university for you can sometimes feel like an insurmountable task.

This is the point at which you’d turn to university league tables. There are three main UK-based league tables, from the Complete University Guide, the Guardian, and the Times. Then there are international league tables such as the QS World University Rankings. Let’s say you were thinking of studying at the University of Surrey. The Complete University Guide has it at 11th, down from 8th last year; in the Guardian, it’s an impressive 4th, behind only Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews; in the Times, it’s at 8th, up from 11th. If that’s not confusing enough, in the QS’s international league table, it comes in at 247th internationally, 35th if you only look at British universities, and far behind universities such as Aberdeen, which it beats comfortably in the UK-based rankings. What’s going on?

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International league tables versus UK-based ones

There are several factors affecting the difference between international league tables and UK-based ones. Research quality and awards won by alumni factor much more in international league tables than in UK-based ones; for you as a prospective undergraduate, the number of awards won by alumni is likely to be irrelevant, and whether the university’s research is very good or merely good won’t matter until you’re a postgraduate.

League tables differ worldwide.
League tables differ worldwide.

Certain types of university struggle more on international league tables, too. The LSE, which does appallingly on international league tables, has put on a statement to say that international 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”. As the LSE is one of the UK’s best and most internationally respected universities, their complaint seems reasonable. This also highlights a misconception that many students have in relation to league tables: that the UK-based league tables reflect the prestige that a particular university has in the UK, while international league tables reflect its prestige internationally. In reality, there is no such correlation.
Another factor to bear in mind if you are looking at universities internationally is that a university’s standing is affected by its finances, which are usually calculated in relation to the wealth of the country in which it is located. In practical terms, this means that if a country enters a recession, its universities plummet down the league tables, whereas if a commodity it exports becomes more valuable, its universities go right back up. The University of Oslo demonstrates this neatly: its ranking has declined steadily from 2012 as the price of oil (Norway’s biggest export) has fallen. To a certain extent, this is reasonable: more wealth in a country usually means more funding for universities, possibly leading to smaller classes sizes and a better education for students. All the same, international league tables exaggerate these differences; students at Irish universities, for instance, are unlikely to have perceived their education going down the drain in 2008, and then improving in perfect step with the recovery of the Irish economy.

British newspapers and their biases

UK-based league tables probably reflect the concerns and priorities of a prospective undergraduate choosing a university better than international league tables do. For instance, they lack the bias against smaller, more specialised universities; they take student satisfaction into account (which is virtually impossible to do internationally, given cultural differences); and they look at the employability of the average graduate more than the awards won by super-stars.

Newspaper league tables can help you decide, but don't take them as gospel.
Newspaper league tables can help you decide, but don’t take them as gospel.

But despite all of that, we’ve already seen that there are significant differences between British university league tables, even when they’re supposed to be measuring the same things. Why is this the case?
To answer that question, we need to look in more detail at the political history of the British university system. Briefly, British universities can be broken down into groups. There are the elite, ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which have for centuries supplied the majority of Britain’s notables in any field you care to mention. There are the universities that were built in Victorian and Edwardian times when the population boomed. There are the universities built in the 1960s and 1970s, when access to education was expanding rapidly. And finally, there are the universities converted from polytechnics in the 1990s, in order (in part) to break down the prejudice against vocational versus academic education. There are exceptions to these groupings, but not many.
This is a political history because the left in British politics usually champions the newer universities, which in general accept more state school students, while the right defends the older, more traditional universities, which in general accept more private school students. Comparing the Guardian’s top ten universities with the Times’ top ten universities demonstrates this quite neatly: even though they have seven universities in common, the Guardian’s top ten have an average date of foundation of 1723, while the Times’ top ten have an average date of foundation of 1696. The Guardian prefers newer universities (Loughborough, founded 1909; Lancaster, founded 1964; and Bath, founded 1966), while the Times prefers older universities (Exeter, founded 1855; the LSE, founded 1895; and UCL, founded 1826). The Complete University Guide’s rankings, for reference, come out between the two, with an average date of foundation of 1702.

Bath University was founded in 1966.
In with the new: Bath University was founded in 1966.

What you do with this knowledge depends partly on your own politics. Certainly, if the left-wing Guardian appears to be promoting a newer university way above the level it’s at in any other league table, or the centre-right Times has similarly inflated the ranking of an older university that accepts lots of private school students, it’s worth taking it with a pinch of salt. Beyond that, it’s worth thinking about what sort of university you want. Do you want somewhere older and possibly more traditional, or somewhere younger and possibly more radical? You can choose your league table with that in mind.

Other league table differences

You might also want to consider the priorities that result in the Times and the Guardian coming to these different conclusions. The Guardian gives much more weight to student feedback, with separate categories for “satisfied with course”, “satisfied with teaching” and “satisfied with feedback”. It also looks into “value added”, which is the amount that a student has improved through going to that university. This measure typically privileges universities that accept students with lower grades, as it’s hard for a student who started university with straight A*s to improve all that much. That said, Oxford still comes in the top ten nationally based on this measure (Cambridge is nowhere to be seen).
By contrast, the Times clumps student feedback into a single “student experience” score and adds an extra measure, of “completion rate” – the percentage of students who don’t drop out of their degree. This tends to favour more prestigious universities, as having a degree is more important to their students’ careers, and students who feel they are lucky to have got a place there are less likely to cut their losses if they’re unhappy there.

Student satisfaction is a vital component for most.
Student satisfaction is a vital component for most.

The Complete University Guide uses a single “student satisfaction” score, doesn’t look at completion rate, and adds an additional measure of “research quality” – which, as discussed above, isn’t all that relevant to prospective undergraduates, though it can act as a measure of how successful the university is at attracting high-quality staff. (Remember, though, that brilliant researchers can make terrible lecturers, and vice versa).
So when choosing which league table to follow, think about what’s important to you. Are you concerned with dropping out? Or does student satisfaction matter more? Perhaps you’d rather be surrounded by the smartest possible set of peers, and therefore you should sort universities by how stringent their entry standards are. This is a factor in all three league tables, and it’s worth paying attention to relative to a university’s declared grade requirements; some universities ask for high grades, but are prepared to be flexible, while others ask for lower grades, but won’t budge if you don’t quite get there – so you can end up with a university that asks for higher grades actually having lower entry standards than a university that asks for lower grades initially.

Should you pay attention to league tables at all?

Bristol University is having a bad time in the league tables at the moment. The Times has it at 20th in the UK (down from 19th), the Complete University Guide at 24th (down from 15th) and the Guardian at a woeful 38th (down from 35th). The University of Kent comes in close behind Bristol in the Times league table, and ahead in the Guardian and the Complete University Guide.

The University of Bristol remains highly well-regarded academically.
The University of Bristol remains highly well-regarded academically.

Yet if you were choosing between Bristol and Kent based on prestige, job prospects and most of the other things we mean when we ask which is the better university, you’d probably be better off choosing Bristol. Ultimately, regardless of league table position, it still has a reputation for being a second-choice university for Oxbridge applicants (this is a good thing), while employers are rather less likely to be aware of Kent’s recent successes.
There are some league table features that it’s worth keeping an eye out for. If a university that’s previously been doing well takes a sudden hit in terms of student satisfaction, that suggests they’re doing something that significantly annoys a previously contented student body – so if you go on an open day there, try to find out what it is. Perhaps there are new marking guidelines that are perceived as unfair, cuts to funding for teaching, or something completely unrelated to academics but still potentially important, such as problems with accommodation provision.
On the other hand, a league table drop in a university’s entry standards is likely to be less meaningful. If it’s a university that’s dominated by STEM subjects, like Bath, it could be something as insignificant as Maths A-level being harder than usual that year. It could even be that some students were put off by heavy rain on the open day!
Pay attention to a university’s rough location on league tables, definitely. If you’re deciding between a university that’s in the UK top twenty and a university that’s barely scraping into the top hundred, there will probably be a noticeable difference in teaching quality. Also, remember that league table ranking and entry standards are correlated; if you’re an AAB student in a class of CCD students, you’re likely to be bored by the standard of discussion taking place – no matter how inspiring the lecturer is. But it’s foolish to choose Leeds over Southampton because Leeds is one place higher in the Complete University Guide league table, especially given that the Guardian has it the other way around, as did the Complete University Guide last year.

We hate to say it, but not all 2.1s are created equal.
Some people have a rocky start to university but, wherever you go, it’ll work itself out in the end!

A 2.1 from Oxford will probably serve you better than a First from Dundee, but this only holds for the UK’s absolute best universities (certainly Oxford and Cambridge, probably also Imperial and the LSE, perhaps St Andrews). By comparison, Manchester might be a good 20 league table places behind Durham in any league table you look at, but given a candidate with a First from Manchester and one with a 2.1 from Durham with comparable skills and experience, an employer is much more likely to pick the Manchester graduate.

In general, a university’s league table position is a little like a best-before date on a carton of milk: use it as a guideline, but if it smells funny, your own judgment matters more.
Image credits: graphs on laptop; calculator; flags; kermit reading the paper; bath university; smiling girl; wills physics laboratory; pebble wearing mortarboard

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