• University League Tables - A Users Guide

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Many school-leavers get hooked on the idea that League Tables (of all varieties) can help you choose a University and a course. This article will explain what a League Table actually is.

It will also explain what the Russell Group is, and why this is an equally unsatisfactory way of choosing which Universities to apply to.

Nowadays, every newspaper going seems to produce some annual frenzy of Table or ranking and there are all sort of independent guides (such as push.co.uk), or the world rankings (Shanghai, Times Higher Educational Supplement). With such an array of tables, and since most of the Tables don't agree which each other, it’s not surprising that there is so much confusion and disagreement over how much importance to place on them, and that there are numerous long, and often furious, threads on TSR message boards about them.

Essentially, the recommendation is that using a League Table or any other 'ranking' is no way to choose where you will go to Uni for 3 years, or what subject to study. Read on.....


League Tables: A User’s Guide

Why are League Tables Produced?

Until about 15 years ago there were no such things as University League Tables. But University applicants still managed to make the decision about 'which Uni?' - and they still had a great time at Uni and perfectly successful lives after graduating. So why do we need League Tables now?

League Tables are produced by newspapers. That should tell you something important. They don't do it as a social service - they do it because it sells newspapers, sells 'guides' and gets their newspaper's name mentioned every time the League Table is quoted. Universities generally like League Tables because it helps then market their University - that means 'sell' their University to people like you. So neither the newspapers or the Universities are unbiased here. They are both 'making money' out of school-leaver's paranoia that they might not choose the 'right' University. Let's get one thing straight here - there is no such thing as the 'best' Uni for any subject. There is only the best Uni for you, your interests and needs. League Tables will never, ever, be able to make this choice for you.

What is ‘Prestige’?

It’s pretty hard to read TSR 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 common sense answer seems to contain some combination of the following:

Big, old, nice buildings, high entry requirements, has lots of graduates in politics / journalism / investment banking / science, my mum has heard of them, has lots of big research things going on, their academics are always on the telly, mentioned in the newspapers all the time, has 'nice' middle-class students, lots of competition to get in, oh, and did I mention 'posh' and looks like Hogwarts?

Of course, we jest a bit - but you will find people who actually do make the decision about which Uni to go to based on exactly this sort of thought process. The point is that ‘prestige’ is not something that can be measured. It isn't a concept that can be broken down into constituent parts for exact comparison – because neither those parts, the weight of each, or their meaning can be agreed upon or measured. It's about as exact a term as 'best'. And remember Universities drop in and out of fashion, and that's often all the supposed prestige is - fashion. The History Dept at Leicester University is now famous for 'finding' Richard the Third's skeleton under a car-park. That might have increased Leicester's 'prestige' a bit, but it doesn't really tell you much else beyond their ability to successfully dig up car-parks.

So, league table rankings are not the same thing as prestige. Prestige is something with no factual basis that gets quoted by people who havn't any real idea how to evaluate a university. TSR posters go around in circles for hours arguing over it. This is not likely to ever stop, but at least recognising that league tables do not measure prestige, or indeed anything meaningful, is a good first step to understanding what they do measure - and why they shouldn't be used as any ultimate (or 'quick') way to help you choose a University or a subject.

Russell Group

In 1994 as the university sector expanded, many of the older established Universities panicked a bit. They were worried about their 'image' and maintaining what they perceived as their profile as leading Higher Education institutions. 24 Universities formed themselves into the 'Russell Group' "to represent its members' interests". Please note - that's the universities' interests, not the students' interests.

Membership is based on a University's 'research profile' and how much money it receives in research grants - neither of which have any relevance to undergraduate degrees and their 'quality'. Inclusion within the Russell Group does not in itself make any University 'better' than any other one that isn't. Bath, St Andrews, Strathclyde, Leicester, Lancaster and several other universities than many school-leavers and their parents/teachers might consider 'leading' universities are not members of the Russell Group.

Using 'Russell Group' as some sort of gold-standard or quality mark when choosing a University is about as daft (and lazy) as using League Tables.

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). As such, whilst you could argue that the points system should be different, the ways in which teams are judged to have won was widespread acceptance and is intuitive and obvious.

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’. The concept has to be operationalised (broken down into different expressions, which can be measured) before it can be ranked.

What does 'better' actually mean - and how do you measure it anyway? Whatever criteria you use, its usually based on things that are very questionably 'better'.

      • The first is the university itself – what attributes does it have which could make it 'good'? Does it simply have a lot of money to spend on undergraduates - or that is money being spent on things that have nothing to do with undergraduates like esoteric research projects? 'Good' facilities? Lots of research or teaching staff? Is the research the lecturers put out good? (It should be noted that many of these concepts are themselves hugely ambiguous and thus contentious – the most obvious being research quality, since you can’t measure quality through quantity).

      • The second is to measure the outputs – that is to say, the students. What grades do they exit with? Are they well taught (and 'what is your definition' of well taught')? Is there a lot of competition for places? Do they enjoy the experience? How do you measure this - especially if these students have only been to this University and so have nothing else to compare it against.

Indeed, by and large, these are the sorts of concepts that university league tables do measure. But there are different ways of measuring each, and since the league tables are compound indicators, each of these different dimensions can attract different weightings in producing the overall rankings. These differences – in metrics and weighting – 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 League Tables Do

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. It may be tempting to leap to the final conclusion (which a fair few posters do where the ‘new’ universities are concerned), but it should be noted that the courses with the highest proportion of Firsts tend to be STEM subjects at the ‘old’ universities: for instance, 40% of maths students at Oxford graduated with Firsts. One reason for this is that many 'top' Unis encourage anyone likely to get a 2.2 or a Third to leave long before their final year - so is that % of Firsts from 'everyone who started the course' or just those who were still there in Year 3? And finally, do remember that just because 50% of folk doing a particular degree got a First, it doesn't automatically mean you will.
      • Entry standards, usually in the form of the average UCAS points total for the previous year’s starting cohort. These give an indication of the A level performance of the cohort; and by the same token the competitiveness of the entry process (since a very popular course with few places is likely to be able to pick more qualified candidates). Problems with this as an indicator include the fact that A levels may not be a reliable indicator of intelligence (being highly correlated with social class), that some admissions decisions are based on other factors like artistic ability, and the fact that universities can ‘massage’ competitiveness indicators by, if necessary, restricting spaces on a particular course or counting General Studies as an A level despite not accepting it for admissions purposes. Combinations of these two indicators result in the Value Added Scores used by some tables (such as the Guardian) - and you've just realised that it doesn't mean very much at all in terms 'will I enjoy the course'.
      • Staff numbers, in the form of a staff : student ratio, is often misused as a rough-and-ready proxy for the amount of ‘student attention’ you'll get. This actually doesn't tell you anything of the sort, since many staff included may not teach undergraduates at all and much of your teaching will be done by hourly paid PhD students (and they don't get counted on any League Table). Better indicators (rarely included in league tables) are the average class size, which you can obtain from the departments you’re interested in; and the overall size of the department, which may give you an indication of the range of different module options available. Essentially, a high staff to student ratio cannot mean 'better teaching' - however you want to judge that.
      • Staff research scores, usually graded from the last RAE (which by definition will be at least 12 months out of date). There is more information on the RAE here, and discussing its strengths and weaknesses could take up pages. Very simply, the RAE is produced by the government as a means of judging research quality in order to dole out research funding. Selections are peer-reviewed by panels of well-known academics. As such, whilst it may be useful within academia, it has nothing to do with teaching or the undergraduate experience. Being at a department with cutting-edge researchers can be an excellent experience, but this will have no real impact on any undergraduate course it runs (its a bit like asking what impact last year's A level grades at your school will have on the next intake of Year 7s....). Just because a Professor wrote lots of journal articles two years ago or that Dept has attracted a mega research grant might make them look good - but that doesn't translate into 'lots more teaching or resources for undergrads' - often quite the reverse; you won't get taught by Mr Grand Professor because he's now far too busy doing research. At most RG Unis, the bulk of undergrad teaching is done by hourly paid PhD students for exactly this reason.
      • Teaching scores and student satisfaction, previously measured through the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) which graded departments out of 24; but since the TQA hasn’t been run for several years this is 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 www.unistats.com. Essentially, all graduating finalists are invited to fill out a questionnaire on their experience. Only departments with over 50% completion (which in the case of big departments can mean 100 or more respondents) are included. 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 – highlighting the fact that prestigious universities don’t always offer the most appropriate environments for some students.
      • Graduate employment, the full panel data for which is again available at unistats.com. Essentially, universities follow up their graduates six months after graduation to find out what they have gone on to do, and the full breakdown is then submitted to the HEFCE (higher education funding council) which publishes it on unistats. This full data is very informative since it classifies types of employment. The statistics used in league tables however are usually next-to useless, since it averages all this information into one score, often out of 10 as an indicator of ‘graduate prospects’. It therefore includes people who are shelf-stacking in Tescos - or who have lied about what they are doing or how much they are earning. The other information used to compile this is often average starting salary. One word of warning: take the latter with a pinch of salt. For instance, in national surveys, social work graduates come out very well whilst law graduates’ average starting salaries tank in comparison. Why? Social workers go straight into a (usually) guaranteed job with a decent starting salary that then doesn’t rise. The most successful law graduates conversely go into the LPC / BVC and then vocational training that pays very badly, but gives them enormous future earning potential. Remember that these surveys are conducted six months after graduation. And they are averages - so it doesn't mean everyone doing that course will automatically earn shed-loads immediately on graduation, and it certainly can't guarantee that you will.
      • University spending, used to indicate the amount the university spends on student facilities. On the face of this is a useful and good indicator of the amount of care universities take over their students’ studying conditions. The unfortunate consequence of this is that 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. And it might simply reflect a big new building for a Dept that has nothing to do with your subject.

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?

If you’ve been reading this guide attentively to this point you should by now be extremely savvy about what league tables exist to do. So in many respects you should be able to answer this yourself! 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. This will give you an excellent idea of which universities will be roughly in your range given the points total you’re predicted, and where you can expect to be in good academic company.
      • 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 get a first 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.

What League Tables Don't Do

Important stuff league tables don’t cover

Whilst you can undoubtedly 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 (quantifying the qualitative, again). Whilst there is an almost unlimited list of things that could be added to this section (how cheap is the student bar?) here I restrict myself to things related to how ‘good’ the university is likely to be for you.

      • 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. These are factors likely to make or break the student experience, but will probably require a visit to the universities you’re interested in to ascertain.
      • 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 how you find 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.

So how much should I worry about League Table position or 'Russell Group' when choosing where to go to Uni?

  • Don’t lose any sleep over it. If you are the type of person who likes to think they are 'better' than everyone else then absolutely, make your decisions on the basis of a newspaper's League Table, or a marketing brand name like Russell Group. However, for all the reasons stated above, this is unlikely to be a wise decision for anything other than mindless bragging rights with other under-informed school-leavers/nerds.
  • Reading the information provided in League Tables can be' interesting', but picking university number 2 over university number 4 simply because it is 2 tiddly position points above the other 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 when picking between similar universities.

Final thought ......

  • So if you are deciding between Sheffield and Warwick, or Nottingham and Cardiff, or Sussex or St Andrews or whatever, you should now realise that their League Table position, or their inclusion with the Russell Group (or not), is irrelevant to your decision. Base it on more sensible factors like 'which course is more interesting' and 'where will I be happiest for 3 or 4 years'.

Will my University's position on a League Tables or inclusion in 'the Russell Group' affect my future employment chances?

  • Despite what many school-leavers think, mainstream employers do not not sift job applications depending on which precise Uni you went to. Nor do they keep copies of any League Tables or Russell Group membership pinned to the wall. Most employers actually haven't got a clue what a League Table or the Russell Group is, and even if they do, they know its no way to choose an employee.
  • What graduate employers look for is a) a 2i or a First, from a University they have heard of, b) evidence that you did more at University than just your degree (relevant work experience/internships, vacation work, voluntary work, University activities like sport, societies etc). Which actual Uni you went to for your degree in Electrical Engineering, Sociology, or French etc won't be the deciding factor in offering you an interview, nor will it influence their final decision on an offer.
  • If you want to be a lawyer or banker then by all means aim for a 'top' university if it makes you feel good. However, there are plenty of examples of highly successful lawyers, city bankers and corporate CEOs who didn't go to the so-called 'top' Universities which is reasonable evidence that going to a top Uni isn't an automatic passport to career success or a happy life.
  • If you are thinking of postgraduate study like a Masters degree or a PhD, it might surprise you to know that other Universities don't get obsessed about which Uni you did your first degree at. They, like employers, are more interested in your degree result (2i or a First) and what you are like as a person - what your research interests are, and what else you do with your life. If you look at the profile of many academics, you will see that they did their postgraduate study/research at a University that focussed on their particular subject interests or, more often, simply where they could get funding.
  • This report from the Institute of Physics reveals that the career destinations and salaries for graduates in Physics from Russell Group and non-Russell group Universities are not dramatically different (see Section 7). It's actually the class of degree that makes the difference, not the University attended. And that this is the only section of the report that even mentions this issue should also tell you something about its overall importance amongst intelligent professionals.

Whilst you are at Uni concentrate on filling your CV with interesting things, relevant experiences and useful skills.

And enjoy your degree - wherever you go to do it.

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