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What do university league tables really tell you?

While there are a lot of university league tables out there, how useful are they really when it comes to choosing the right course for you?

For a truly rounded view of a university, you should use league table rankings as a source of information, but not the only one.

Just because a uni is at the top of a league table doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right uni for you (and just because one is towards the bottom of a league table doesn’t mean it isn’t right for you). 

Different league tables (and what they show)

The main league tables are:

* The Times and Sunday Times require a subscription to view.

Each calculates its tables using different criteria and weighting. 

All include:

  • Student satisfaction scores: a helpful indicator of how students rate elements of their university experience – but scores don’t really vary between different universities.
  • Student-to-staff ratio: this can be a helpful estimation of how much a university invests in its staffing. However these won’t tell you how many hours of teaching you’ll get or who is teaching you.
  • Graduate prospects: these numbers give you a snapshot of what graduates go on to do next, but they’re only collected 15 months after leaving uni. 
  • Entry grades: these can have a major impact on subject rankings, but you could argue that how well students do at university is more important than the A-levels they came in with. The total Ucas tariff points students achieve are usually higher than the actual entry requirements needed to get on to a course – so don't be put off if a course looks out of reach based on the requirements.
Search for a course to see its full entry requirements here on The Uni Guide. 

League tables: what to look out for

  • Objective versus subjective data: know where the data’s coming from. Statistics collected by outside agencies should be more neutral, while student feedback might be influenced by external issues and 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 quickly gets dated. 
  • 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. These can be a more useful assessment of what you’re likely to encounter as a student. 

Reading between the 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).

It could be worth doing extra research into universities that have jumped up or dropped down the tables.

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, though. Certain courses are respected by employers in specific career areas, even if the university isn't near the top of the table.

Overall uni rankings may not reflect a specific department's excellence (or lack of).

So how much importance should I place on league tables? 

Ultimately, the most important thing is to choose the right course for you. Looking at league tables shouldn’t be a substitute for undertaking thorough research into the modules and how you’ll be assessed.

Decide on your priorities. This could be the course content, how far the uni is from your home or long-term career prospects.

Create your own shortlist of courses and universities based on these priorities and use the league tables to sense-check your list.

This article about choosing the right university for you has more detailed advice to help you narrow down your choices, and here are some of the best ways to compare different university courses

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