Choosing a university

What do university league tables really tell you?

By Gill Sharp (Careers Adviser) - 20 August 2012

Students at the University of Cardiff chatting

Checking out the university league tables - of which there are several - is a well established student (and parent) ritual. But how useful are they when it comes down to choosing a course?

For a truly rounded view, you should use league table rankings as one of, rather than the, source of information with which to research universities. Just because a uni is at the top of a league table doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right uni for you, and equally just because one is towards the bottom of a league table doesn’t mean it isn’t right for you. 

The different league tables

The main ones are The Guardian, The Times*, The Sunday Times* and the Complete University Guide. Each calculates their tables using different criteria and weighting – follow the links for an in-depth breakdown of this (* requires subscription). All the rankings include:

Student satisfaction scores: a helpful indicator of how students rate elements of their university experience – but prone to be slanted by the uni’s issues of the day (not necessarily academic ones). Scores don’t differ hugely between different universities, either.

Student to staff ratio: another factor used across the league tables. A helpful estimation of how much a university invests in its staffing, but won’t tell you how many hours of teaching you’ll get – or who it is teaching you.

Graduate prospects: these numbers give you a snapshot of what graduates go on to do next, but they’re only collected six months after leaving uni. We’ve got more on how to use graduate employment stats when choosing courses.

Entry grades: these can have a major impact on subject rankings, but you could argue that how well students do while at university is more important than what students came in with.The total UCAS tariff points students achieve are usually higher than the actual entry requirements you need to get on to a course. This can make it look like some unis are out of reach – always refer to entry requirements listed on UCAS (and on Which? University course pages).

League tables: what to look for

Objective versus subjective: know where the data’s coming from. Statistics collected by outside agencies should be more neutral, while student feedback might be influenced by all kinds of external issues and by personal feelings.

Indicators, not definitive info: not all categories are updated every year. Assessments to evaluate a university’s research quality may be several years old. Even annual surveys won’t always mirror the most recent changes: because of publication dates, the information could be fresh rather than brand-new.

What’s missing: the Guardian’s league table, for instance, 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.

University overall versus subject: along with an overall university ranking, 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 on the ground.

Reading between league table lines

Unis at the top of the league tables are obviously doing something right. But you’ll probably find it’s the usual suspects performing well year to year (Oxbridge, Durham, Imperial…). A university that’s leapt up or dropped down the tables, on the other hand, could warrant a more careful look.

League tables are often closely bunched together at the top, middle and bottom, so don't read too much into universities placed five to 10 places apart - a university in 20th place is usually separated by the one in 30th by only a few percentage points. This is also why some unis and courses fluctuate from year to year - small differences in score can mean big differences in placing.

Higher Education Liaison Officers Association (heloa)

League tables don’t always tell you the full story, either. Certain university courses are well regarded by employers in specific career areas, even though the universities may not feature in the upper reaches of the tables. Falmouth University and Sunderland University are known to produce high achieving graduates in journalism and animation respectively, but there’s little sense of that reflected in the league tables.

Overall uni rankings may also conceal pockets of excellence, or mediocrity, at a course or department level.

League tables and you

Ultimately, choosing the right course is for you is the most important task at hand. Looking at league tables shouldn’t be a proxy for undertaking thorough research into things like the course content, modules and how you’ll be assessed.

Decide on your priorities. It could be that the content of the course is most important to you, or the distance of the uni or college from your home, the entry requirements or the long-term career possibilities. Create your own shortlist of courses and universities based on these priorities and use the league tables to sense check what you’ve got on your ‘maybe’ list.

Not sure what’s most important to you yet? Here are some of the best ways to compare different university courses to get you started.
 

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