Do league tables matter? How to make sure you're choosing the right university

A student studying

Finding the right university is about more than number-crunching. Here's what else you need to think about

Are you a slave to university league tables?

Every prospective student spends at least some time trawling through the latest uni beauty parades. But if you’re basing your decision purely on the number against a uni’s name, then you’re missing a trick.

League tables can give a valuable insight into a uni’s performance and reputation, but they’re not the final word. Even high-ranking unis agree.

"League tables don’t take everything into account,” says Lydia Newton, recruitment manager at UEA. “There are so many things to consider when choosing a university that they don’t cover, such as the type of campus and style of teaching. These are both important elements that should form part of your overall decision too."

“Use them with caution,” adds Keir Robinson, education liaison officer at Heriot Watt University. “Just because a university is high up the league table, it doesn’t mean that the course and location is right for you.”

But if league tables aren’t the whole story, what else do you need to know? We’re glad you asked…

Discover more about university

Before we go on, we just wanted to let you know about a series of free webinars being run by UEA to help answer students' questions about university. There are webinars on each of the following themes; the links below will take you to the UEA website to sign up for the next ones:

 - How to pay for university
 - Thinking about university?
 - Applying to university

We've also got an article that explains each of the webinars, where you can find lots more information on what's happening in each one.

students raising hands in classroom

Ask yourself: will I be happy living here?

This is a massively important question, but it’s one that so many students forget to consider until the very last moment.

Don’t underestimate how important it is to be happy where you’re studying. You’ll find it tough to make a success of your time at uni if you’re miserable where you’re living.

“Think carefully about the things that make you happy,” says Lydia. "Would you prefer to live in a bustling city or do you enjoy quieter places? Will you have access to the sports facilities you need? Are you hoping to take up a new hobby or activity? Make sure you look at the societies and clubs on offer.”

An open day is your ideal opportunity to find out more about the living situation.

“I’ve known students who have changed their mind about a university after visiting, both positively and negatively,” says Karen Nesbitt, undergraduate admissions manager at Aston Business School.

“You’ll spend three or four years of your life at university so it’s important you’re happy there. There isn’t a league table in the world that can tell you that, only you can decide.”

While you’re visiting the uni, you’ve also got the chance to talk to people about the realities of campus life. “Ask questions such as how many students share one kitchen, the distance of the campus to the nearest train station and how far your accommodation is from the nearest supermarket,” says Kirsty Wilkinson, school and college liaison manager at Loughborough University.

“These may seem relatively insignificant but it is often these areas that can make the difference between settling in and enjoying your new surroundings and not. They are just as important as questions relating to course structure and content.”

If you can, make sure you also check out the city and local life, especially if you’re looking for a good nightlife, shopping and other fun things to do which don’t involve studying.

Get past the marketing spiel – pick the course apart

So maybe you like the university. Great! But how about the course?

“Don’t take the course at face value,” says Kevin Betts, head of recruitment at the University of Sussex. “Many students listen to the sales people like me and the academics who teach the sexy stuff and are sold on it from there.”

Not all courses are made equal. “There’s no national curriculum in higher education, and even degrees with the same title and course code may be entirely different," says Lydia. 

"Take medicine, for example. Some medical degrees don’t have any patient interaction until the third or fourth year of study. Others, like UEA, have patient interaction from the first few weeks.”

Put the time and effort in to pick apart the course. Look at every module, the style of assessment, the level of contact time. “You’ll have a good idea of the type of assessment you do well in and what you struggle with,” says Michael Nicholson, director of student recruitment and admissions, University of Bath. “Think of this when considering your degree choices.”

Once you’ve got a full picture of the course, you’ll be in a position to ask yourself: is this really the course I want to be studying?

student reading a book

How much will it cost to live there?

Cost is a key factor for any student – and some university areas are more expensive than others. 

When you're considering cost, think about the next three to four years, not just first year. The price you pay to live in halls is one thing, but once you move off-campus you’re going to be looking at the going rate in your uni’s city.

Choosing a place where you’re going to be paying less in rent can mean more of your maintenance loan will be available for other things.

You might also want to consider the financial support that could be available. Universities offer a wide range of bursaries and scholarships (many students don't realise quite how many there are).

What's available will vary by uni, but most institutions will have a page on their website where the available offers are detailed. Take a look at those pages to find out what each university can offer - then check whether you're eligible.

Scholarships could knock a chunk off your tuition fees. They're awarded based on varying criteria, but many are never claimed. “The trick is to do your research and apply to everything you're eligible for,” says Keir. “The worst they can do is say no.”

“Always apply for scholarships if you think you might even have a remote chance of achieving one,” says Lydia. “Every year, significant amounts of scholarship money goes un-applied for.”

@uniofeastanglia Have you checked if you are eligible for a scholarship? #University #Scholarships #Student #Finance ♬ Aesthetic - Tollan Kim

What else do you get, other than a degree?

Even though getting a job after uni might seem like a long way off, you should look at the opportunities the degree will offer you to improve your job prospects, says Louise Foster-Agg, admissions manager at Aston University.

“For example, does your course offer a chance to do a work placement, a year abroad or to learn a language?

“You might also to want to consider other course-related extracurricular activities that your department offers such as guest speakers or subject-specific student societies. Particularly if you aren't sure of your long-term career plans, the more experience you can gain during your degree the better.”

students working and laughing

Are university league tables important?

So, back to our original question. Should you use league tables to help you choose your university?

When you're shortlisting your unis, league tables can form a useful part of your research.

Well-respected league tables such as those published by The Guardian, The Times and Complete University Guide provide a useful snapshot of a university's performance in a range of areas.

It can be handy, for instance, to check how a university performs for student satisfaction on your chosen course. Or you might look at factors such as graduate prospects or degree completion rate.

Why not include this information in your thinking?

But what these league tables won't tell you is what your own experience of the university will be like. To get a better idea about that, you'll need to dig much deeper.

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The Student Room is proud to work with UEA, a UK top-25 university (Complete University Guide 2024) and UK top-30 university (The Times/Sunday Times 2024), as the official partner of our student life section.

Located on the edge of Norwich, a lively city full of secret gems just waiting to be discovered.

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