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University league tables explained

University league tables explainedTop university lists make headlines – but how important are they really?

Types of league tables

The best-known league tables try to give an overall ranking for universities. But there is no single way to judge whether one university is better than another, so these rankings work by combining scores for more specific things, like how happy students are with their course and the employment rates of graduates.

Other league tables focus on one particular aspect of universities. These include things like:

  • Student satisfaction
  • Research quality
  • Degree results
  • Graduate employment
  • Quality of student life
  • Cost of living
  • Ethical and environmental standards
  • Sports and other extracurricular activities

Others break down their results into separate rankings for different subjects.

For league tables to be useful, it's important to understand what they are comparing and to find rankings that are relevant to you. For example, a ranking based on research quality will be more useful if you are looking for a postgraduate course than an undergraduate one.

What are league tables useful for?

League tables can make it easier to start choosing between universities, because you can compare lots of different places at once without having to research them all in detail. They also provide a way to check your decisions are sensible: if one of your choices has a low rank for the subject you want to study, for example, you may need to do more research. However, they should never be your sole source of information, and they aren't a good way to make the final choice about where to apply, because it's unlikely that they'll match up with your requirements and priorities.

Rankings that focus on a particular area can help you to identify potential problems with a university. For example, if a university does badly in a cost of living league table, you know to do some extra research into living costs, bursaries and scholarships.

Getting the most out of league tables

Keep these tips in mind to make league tables work for you:

  • Check how the rankings were decided before using a league table, so you know what the results really mean.
  • Compare rankings across different league tables and different years to see if they are consistent.
  • Use league tables as a starting point for research and to check for things you've missed, not to make final decisions.
  • Start by looking at universities that do well in the areas you care about most. Once you have a shortlist, look at rankings in other areas to find out about any potential downsides.
  • Pay more attention to a university's rough position in rankings whether one is slightly higher than another: the difference between 1st and 2nd place probably won't mean much.
  • Make sure the ranking you're looking at is relevant to you: if it's based on the experiences of full-time students, for example, it might not be helpful for comparing part-time courses.

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