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    League Tables: A User’s Guide


    This is an edited post. The full version of the guide is available on the wiki here, which goes into greater detail about using league tables and provides further reading. Please do check it out if you’ve enjoyed this post and are struggling to find information about choosing a university.

    • What is prestige?
    • How do League Tables work?
    • What do they Measure?
    • What numbers come out?
    • How do I use them?

    League Tables are one of the most popular topics in GUD. Nowadays, every newspaper going seems to produce some annual frenzy of comparison – with the Times, Independent, Guardian, and Sunday Times all publishing some form of ranking. It’s easy to forget that league tables were unheard of until 15 years ago. Before the production of league tables (and the introduction of the 1992 universities), applicants to UCAS generally had only the advice of their teachers, parents, or friends to go on. It is not surprising that this advice generally favoured old, well-known universities, which fed into the notion of ‘prestige’.

    Interpretation of league tables on TSR and in the real world is loaded with all sorts of beliefs about which universities are ‘good’ (generally old, well-known, familiar) and which are ‘bad’ (new, unknown). These beliefs may in some cases be quite outdated, or at least uncorrelated with league tables. Which is right? That’s your decision, as applicants, to make. Knowing what league tables actually do is a very good first step to interpreting them in a way that actually benefits you.

    What is ‘Prestige’?


    It’s pretty hard to read GUD without stumbling across at least one thread making statements or comparison about ‘prestige’. Sometimes these come from pre-university applicants who are panicking that their university choices will doom them to a life of working in McDonalds, or sometimes they come from bragging first-years who want to make sure that the world knows ‘mine is bigger than yours’. What they usually have in common is a total lack of a clear understanding of what ‘prestige’ means. There is a good reason for this: there isn’t one.

    Everyone seems to have some innate sense of what is, or isn’t, ‘prestigious’ in university terms. I’ve yet to see anyone come up with a workable definition, but the usual answer seems to contain some combination of the following:

    Big, old, nice buildings, high entry requirements, very rich, famous, lots of alumni in politics / journalism / investment banking / science, my mum has heard of them, large research output, mentioned in the newspapers, lots of competition to get in, oh, and did I mention rich?
    Of course, I jest a little bit. But the point is that ‘prestige’ is not something that can be measured. So, league table rankings are not the same thing as prestige. Recognising that league tables do not measure prestige is a good first step to understanding what they do measure.


    How do League Tables Work?


    The first, perhaps obvious, thing to say is that university league tables are not like football league tables. In a football table, position is determined by one factor (who wins), the rules of the game are well-known and clear (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, none for a loss) and the scoring system is set up to try to generate clear differences between teams (favouring winners). The same cannot be said for university tables. This is because they are compound indicators. There is no one way to measure which university is better than another, because it is not a straightforward concept (unlike winning at football). This means that the concept is multi-dimensional – that means, there is no one scale on which to measure ‘betterness’. There are obviously different ways in which you could look at ‘betterness’.

    The first is the university itself – what attributes does it have which could make it good? Does it have a lot of money to spend on undergraduates? Good facilities? Lots of research or teaching staff? Is the research the lecturers put out good?
    The second is to measure the outputs – that is to say, the students. What grades do they exit with? Are they well taught? Is there a lot of competition for places? Do they enjoy the experience?

    Indeed, by and large, these are the sorts of concepts that university league tables do measure. But there are different ways of addressing each, and since the league tables are compound indicators, each of these different dimensions can attract different weightings in producing the overall rankings, which explain the variation from one table to the next. So, what you choose to measure largely determines the result you get. This is why so many posters in GUD stress that you should not take league tables at face value.


    What do they Measure?


    As aforementioned, the precise metrics and weighting used will differ from table to table. Subject tables will simply combine these numbers, and the ‘university league table’ will just average the subject data. However, common themes include:

    The proportion of graduates with ‘good’ degrees, which is to say, 2.1s and firsts. The national average is around 50% 2.1s and 10% firsts, so the degree to which a particular course deviates from this can indicate one of several things: excellent (or above average) teaching; a particularly talented crop of undergraduates; or a course in which it is more easy than average to do well.
    Entry standards, usually in the form of the average UCAS points total for the previous year’s starting cohort. This gives an indication of A level / IB performance and indirectly, the competitiveness of the entry process (since a very popular course with few places is likely to be able to pick more qualified candidates). Combinations of these two indicators result in the Value Added Scores used by some tables (such as the guardian).
    Staff numbers, in the form of a staff : student ratio, used as a rough-and-ready proxy for the amount of ‘student attention’. This unfortunately tells you bugger all about what it’s actually like to be taught in a department, since many staff may not teach undergraduates at all.
    Staff research scores, usually derived from the last RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). The RAE is produced by the government as a means of judging research quality in order to dole out funding. Being at a department with cutting-edge researchers can be an excellent experience, but how much undergraduates will have to do with the research is somewhat unpredictable.
    Teaching scores and student satisfaction, previously measured through the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA), now increasingly being phased out in favour of the National Student Survey (NSS). The latter is a really excellent means of getting an insight into the student experience, and the results can be found on http://www.unistats.com. This is probably the only insight into what it’s actually like to study at a department, and the results are often surprisingly at odds with other league table indicators.
    Graduate employment. Universities follow up their graduates six months after graduation to find out what they have gone on to do, which is then published on unistats. League tables averages all this information (which on unistats is classified by job type) into one score, often out of 10 as an indicator of ‘graduate prospects’. The other piece of information used is average starting salary. Remember though that these surveys are conducted six months after graduation and so may not be representative of future earning potential.
    University spending, On the face of this is a useful and good indicator of the amount of care universities take over their students’ facilities. However universities have started diverting funds from other worthy causes (like outreach programmes or scholarships, which are arguably better uses for their money but don’t count in league tables) into things that are included, like new computers, or gyms.


    What numbers come out?


    The raw data emerging out of these sources are not often readily amenable to being ranked. For instance, RAE scores are published as a panel with percentages of research falling into 4 categories. This has to be processed into a single (percentage) figure by the compilers before it can be used as a weighted metric. There is inevitably some detail lost in this process. The other factor of note here is that the processing of data often results in only very tiny differences. As such, a really, really small fluctuation in one indicator can often result in massive leaps up or down a league table.

    So before dismissing a university that is 10 places further down than another, check the differential of their scores and what actually contributes to this. If it is that university B spends 10% less and has 10% worse RAE / employment prospects, this definitely merits further investigation, since in practice those differentials are so small that they are unlikely to impact on the student experience – and the process of data mashing to produce those percentages may obscure even smaller differences.


    How do I use them?


    The easiest way to get the most out of league tables is to break them down into their constituent parts, decide what aspects are most important to you, and then look into the data further.
    • For instance, entry data can be very useful in seeing how far the university actually respects its entry standards. 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.
    Exit data can suggest good teaching or smart and attentive students. Again, check out unistats.com for a breakdown of performance – this provides the full panel data for those in every degree classification. Whilst you shoudn’t read too much into this – if you’re a smashing candidate, you should be able to do well regardless of where you are – it can be very interesting to see how universities with similar entry standards churn out quite different classifications.
    Staff numbers and research scores can throw up a few departments you might not expect. For instance, there are some excellent RAE-rated departments in newer, more out-of-the-way universities – and they may have lower entry scores than their more traditional counterparts despite having a better reputation for teaching and research excellence, and a student-focussed experience.


    Important stuff league tables don’t cover


    Whilst you can turn the information in league tables to your advantage, they don’t include everything that will be of use to a prospective undergraduate – often purely because it’s impossible to turn into a metric. These include:

    Resources – this is a concept not really adequately captured by student spend. For example, to scientists, one of the most important aspects will be great lab facilities. For those in the arts, humanities and social sciences, a well-stocked library where there isn’t massive competition for the most popular books will be vital.
    Modules – how flexible is the course? How many a year are you expected to take? Are they things you’re interested in? There are enormous differences in how courses are structured – and, since courses are externally marked but not standardised (except when accredited), you may find some subjectively harder than others, depending on your strengths,
    Assessment methods can be massively important to your experience of the course. Some universities assess modules 100% by exam, some by coursework, and most a mixture of the two. If you know in advance that you tend to enjoy, and do better in, one form of assessment over the other it is definitely worth your while asking departments how they examine modules.


    How much should I worry about League Table position / Prestige?


    Don’t lose any sleep over it. If you’re the type of person who likes to be the best at everything for the sake of pride then absolutely, make your decisions on the basis of a league table. However, for all the reasons stated above, this is unlikely to be a wise decision for anything other than bragging rights, since whether or not league tables actually reflect ‘the best’ in any meaningful sense dubious.

    Taking the information provided in league tables can be very useful, but picking university number 2 over university number 4 simply because it is ‘better’ according to the Times or the Guardian is likely to be an utterly silly move. The differences between the top universities are so quantitatively small that where you are likely to be happy should be a far more important consideration to you when picking between similar universities.

    Furthermore, something that is likely to be more important to you in your future career is your personal abilities. Whilst these can be shaped and moulded (and demonstrated) by your choice of degree, a good degree obtained by slavish and myopic attention or conversely total laziness probably won’t stand you in great stead when it comes to graduate recruitment processes, since these test your attitudes and abilities, not just your achievements.

    Studying a subject you love, and doing well at it, will prove more important to your future career than choosing Nottingham over Leeds. Indeed, about 50% - 60% of graduate jobs are open to graduates of any university and any course, usually subject to achieving a 2.1 (making it all the more important that you pick a course you’re likely to succeed in). So, if you have a specific career in mind then by all means pick a degree and university to facilitate that; but if not, then obsessing over minor differences in graduate prospects probably isn’t that productive.

    In some circumstances you would be well advised to consider ‘prestige’. If you wish to be a lawyer or banker then by all means aim for the traditional universities; if you plan to enter academia picking large, successful departments can be helpful. But apart from that your average employer is unlikely to pay the same attention to league tables that most TSRians do.


    In future, all threads discussing league tables in their own terms (i.e., general discussion posts rather than users looking for specific information on choosing a university) will be merged in here. Please take the time to read at least some of this sticky before wading into the debate. Thanks
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    Do they really matter?

    I know that obviously, Oxbridge, Imperial/LSE/UCL and Bristol etc are always thought of as "the best" and always have been really.

    But for all the others, I'm talking mainly number 10 down to about number 30, is there really much difference?

    I was looking at them today, and realised that those 20 universities are all really good, and I'd hold them all in high regard. Leeds was 30th, whereas Exeter was 17th (I think) yet I wouldn't think of Exeter as 13 places better than Leeds. That's just an example.

    But what I'm saying really is, would it really matter if you studied at Nottingham as opposed to Birmingham? If you studied at Lancaster as opposed to Manchester? York as opposed to Cardiff?

    I mean, what if you were to go to a university because it was 12th or something this year, but then by the time you left it had dropped to 35th? Would you feel your degree was suddenly worthless?

    Likewise, if you chose 11th place over 20th, and then found that when you graduated, 20th had actually risen to 9th due to an increase in funding/development etc and yours had dropped to 25th? Would you then regret not going to 20th?

    What I'm saying is, should we really pay THAT much attention to league tables? They can change.

    Isn't it more important to focus on having a good time, getting good experience and getting as good an educaton as you possibly can? If you feel that you'd be happier at a university rated 25th, why pick one rated 10th just because of its CURRENT standing?

    Lalala. Sorry, just thought I should have a bit of a rant, as the attitudes and OBSESSIONS with league tables some TSR members have are starting to worry me!
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    Subject tables are more useful.
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    (Original post by *Han*)
    Do they really matter?
    No

    (Original post by *Han*)
    I know that obviously, Oxbridge, Imperial/LSE/UCL and Bristol etc are always thought of as "the best" and always have been really.

    But for all the others, I'm talking mainly number 10 down to about number 30, is there really much difference?
    No

    (Original post by *Han*)
    I was looking at them today, and realised that those 20 universities are all really good, and I'd hold them all in high regard. Leeds was 30th, whereas Exeter was 17th (I think) yet I wouldn't think of Exeter as 13 places better than Leeds. That's just an example.

    But what I'm saying really is, would it really matter if you studied at Nottingham as opposed to Birmingham? If you studied at Lancaster as opposed to Manchester? York as opposed to Cardiff?
    Not really; there might be some differences relating to specific subjects if you were planning to stay in that field after graduating, but otherwise: No

    (Original post by *Han*)
    I mean, what if you were to go to a university because it was 12th or something this year, but then by the time you left it had dropped to 35th? Would you feel your degree was suddenly worthless?
    No

    (Original post by *Han*)
    Likewise, if you chose 11th place over 20th, and then found that when you graduated, 20th had actually risen to 9th due to an increase in funding/development etc and yours had dropped to 25th? Would you then regret not going to 20th?
    No

    (Original post by *Han*)
    What I'm saying is, should we really pay THAT much attention to league tables?
    No

    (Original post by *Han*)
    They can change.
    Yes they sure can.

    (Original post by *Han*)
    Isn't it more important to focus on having a good time, getting good experience and getting as good an educaton as you possibly can? If you feel that you'd be happier at a university rated 25th, why pick one rated 10th just because of its CURRENT standing?

    Lalala. Sorry, just thought I should have a bit of a rant, as the attitudes and OBSESSIONS with league tables some TSR members have are starting to worry me!
    Quite. Ignore them.
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    On the matter of league tables for universities, don't bother with GUG or guardian, stick to the THES (times higher educational suppliement) in my eyes, the most reasonable one out.
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    Hahahaha, ok, thanks! =)
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    I find league tables give a false indication really.
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    (Original post by Minerva)
    No

    No

    Not really; there might be some differences relating to specific subjects if you were planning to stay in that field after graduating, but otherwise: No

    No

    No

    No

    Yes they sure can.

    Quite. Ignore them.

    Haha, spot on.


    They are flawed and misleading.
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    The precise slots each university gets in any league table is going to be close to worthless - the differences are minimal, and of course league tables measure what makes a good university in amusing and usually very unhelpful ways. Each year the newspapers needs a good headline, and they don't get that if things are the same as last year. That's why universities change position as much as anything else (that and bad data)

    What can be taken away from them is the general vicinity in the tables any university is in, and what other universities they compare to. The top 5 is a worthwhile group, the top 10-15 is another one group, the top 30 is a good group. It gives you a general idea of where universities stand so that you can go off on your own and research and decide for yourself what you like.
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    (Original post by Caspar David Friedrich)
    The precise slots each university gets in any league table is going to be close to worthless - the differences are minimal, and of course league tables measure what makes a good university in amusing and usually very unhelpful ways. Each year the newspapers needs a good headline, and they don't get that if things are the same as last year. That's why universities change position as much as anything else (that and bad data)

    What can be taken away from them is the general vicinity in the tables any university is in, and what other universities they compare to. The top 5 is a worthwhile group, the top 10-15 is another one group, the top 30 is a good group. It gives you a general idea of where universities stand so that you can go off on your own and research and decide for yourself what you like.
    Yes, that's fair enough. There is a recognisable and big difference between Leicester and London Met, for instance. But even then, some of the lower ranked unis do have nationally recognised specialisms so the league tables don't tell you everything.

    The other thing is that a uni's position in the league tables depends on the criteria used, and the Guardian in particular is way out of line with the other tables (especially The Times and the Sunday Times) because it chooses to use criteria such as "inclusiveness", by which unis whose ethnic mix reflects the national rather than the London average get penalised.
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    I think league tables should be banned. Most people on here see through their flimsy criteria and realise that the most important thing when choosing firm and insurance universities is whether you will enjoy your time there. However, I have noticed that some on these threads treat the league tables like the Bible. :rolleyes: :confused:

    I remember reading on some higher education research website that just because a uni has a high research rating on the league tables does not mean that the teaching will be any better at that uni than ones with lower research ratings because lecturers that devote alot of time to research may neglect their lecturing duties somewhat. It's plausible and demonstrates one problem with the league tables - the research may enhance the reputation of a uni, but will not necessarily result in better teaching for the students, who after all, are who the league tables are mainly aimed at.:tsr2:
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    I know a lot of people do pay great attention to league tables: especially a lot of my friends at college who aren't too clued-up about what's being assessed, and they tend not to think rationally. I don't pay much attention to league tables at all: based on overall views, weighing up pros and cons, visiting the departments, thinking about friends at university, I've effectively created my own general university ranking and it has suited me much better (as well as most of my friends, actually). Also, career prospects and the way employers view certain universities vary. I suppose league tables can sometimes give a good, generally vague idea from time to time - but that's about it.
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    Okay, don't flame me.. I'm not basing my uni choices solely on league tables, but I'm sure everyone uses them at some point with their choices.

    Do employers tend to go by the uni as it is in the general league table, or do they go by the uni's place in the league table from what course you did?

    One of my choices is much higher in the general league table, but it is quite a bit lower in the legaue table for that subject.
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    I think employers normally use the general league tables but soemtimes if the uni is renowned for its Business department eg CASS then they will obv know that its a good uni for that department.
    But when I chose my unis I looked at the subject ranking as that was more important to me. I used the general rankings to see how the uni faired overall.
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    You'll find that recruiters dont even look at league tables at all, and at most hardly any. Recruiters have a large experience with universities and therefore know the best universities around without the need for league tables. For example, Oxbridge dont need to be ranked 1 and 2 to be known as the best and universities like Warwick, Bristol, Nottingham, Durham, Edinburgh, e.t.c dont need to be in the top 10 in order for recruiters to know their good, they just know.

    So i suppose if you were to look at rankings the general ones would be best since it gives an indication of which universities are generally better and thus have the best reputations.
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    Neither.

    They've been employing people for many, many years. League tables only came out in 1993. Many employers are probably quite ignorant of them and are probably aware of the tables' significant flaws.

    They'll already have a fair idea of which universities are strong (with many being graduates themselves) and, through experience (employing graduates over many years), will know which universities tend to produce able grads/dominate their areas. In some areas (eg. law - bar or magic circle, IB) this is certainly the case. Even if they are aware of league tables, they will not worry if Oxford, Durham, KCL, LSE or Warwick fall a few places in the general or subject specific league tables. Only if there's a long term noticeable decline in the quality of their graduates.

    Of course, then there's the sizeable majority of employers who care more about your academic record, experience and personal qualities more than brand name.
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    (Original post by River85)
    Neither.

    They've been employing people for many, many years. League tables only came out in 1993. Many employers are probably quite ignorant of them and are probably aware of the tables' significant flaws.

    They'll already have a fair idea of which universities are strong (with many being graduates themselves) and, through experience (employing graduates over many years), will know which universities tend to produce able grads/dominate their areas. In some areas (eg. law - bar or magic circle, IB) this is certainly the case. Even if they are aware of league tables, they will not worry if Oxford, Durham, KCL, LSE or Warwick fall a few places in the general or subject specific league tables. Only if there's a long term noticeable decline in the quality of their graduates.

    Of course, then there's the sizeable majority of employers who care more about your academic record, experience and personal qualities more than brand name.
    Out of interest, why do you put just the 'bar' alongside magic circle law firms? Surely a regional chambers in quite a rural city is nowhere nearly as competitive as top London MC firm?
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    (Original post by artemisa)
    Out of interest, why do you put just the 'bar' alongside magic circle law firms? Surely a regional chambers in quite a rural city is nowhere nearly as competitive as top London MC firm?
    There's no such thing as a rural city, as far as I'm aware, provincial city perhaps.

    I'm not saying it is as competitive. Back office IB isn't as competitive as front office IB. Just tradition still plays a small role.
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    It's called the search function, use it.
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    (Original post by rig_my_role)
    It's called the search function, use it.
    Shhh.

    You could say that about every thread.. especially ones with the terms "Islam", "Gay" or "Israel" in them. :rolleyes:

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