UK University League Tables: how to use them

I was struck this week when I did a quick check on our partner universities’ league table rankings, by the sudden stratospheric rise of Coventry University to No 15 in the Guardian League Tables for 2016. This is an absolutely amazing achievement for a University which is not a member of the prestigious Russell Group, nor one of the older, more traditional UK universities. However, when I did a cross-check on the Times Higher Education table, and the Complete University Guide table, I saw that there were enormous differences in how it is ranked. I can see how students would be confused by these discrepancies and would be asking themselves which table was “the correct” one.

Before I start explaining these differences I should make my own position clear:  as a graduate of the UK university system (4 times) and as a professional education agent for 14 years, I do not find league tables to be very helpful in counselling students as to which course or university is the best one for them. This is because the ranking system provides a major distraction and can blind people to other factors which they should also consider. I can imagine, if I were a parent in a country such as Vietnam seeking a UK university for my son or daughter, and if I had limited knowledge of the UK education system, I would probably be inclined to lean much more heavily on the league tables than someone who knew the UK well and had visited several institutions. In the case of such clients who come to me for information based on league table evidence,  I try to  teach them  how to use the league tables to collect the information they need in order to make a decision, not by looking at the individual overall rankings but by studying the separate criteria which make up the data, and by looking at it from a longer perspective.

Which League Table  Is The “Real” One ?

The first question to answer is about who compiles the  League Tables and what value each one has. There is no “official” league table. The current tables are provided by teams of researchers working for The Guardian newspaper, the Times Higher Education (THE) and the Sunday Times Magazine (this is known as “The Good University Guide”) and an independent team producing the “Complete University Guide” (CUG). The CUG team used to produce the THE  tables, but now THE and CUG produce 2 separate guides. In addition, other newspapers such as The Telegraph and the Financial Times also produce guides from time to time, but the first 3 are the major ones which most universities refer to.  It is impossible to say which one is best- they all have value in different ways, so it is better to look at all 3 and form your own conclusions rather than claim that one is “more accurate” than the others.

Different Methodology 

The differences in position of each university in these 3 league tables is the result of different methodology used to calculate their positions and different criteria used by each team. This is clearly explained here.  For example, all 3 tables consider graduate employment as an essential factor, but they approach it differently: the CUG and The Guardian measure graduate prospects and employability by examining the destinations of leavers as given by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA); the Times, on the other hand, looks at the percentage of graduates still unemployed after a certain period of time.

Both the Times and CUG use HESA’s Research Assessment Framework  (RAF) statistics but this can be very misleading for the following reasons:

  • The League Tables are compiled to guide undergraduates but research performance is not  relevant to undergraduate degrees
  • The RAF is conducted every 5 years – the League Tables are compiled each year, so most of the time it is out of date with regard to any particular year

HESA now asks the compilers of league tables to publish a disclaimer when using research data.In other words, this is not a criterion that is of much use to you in deciding where to do your undergraduate studies.

The Guardian, interestingly,  does not use research data but it has a unique and very interesting factor called “value added”. This is  “based on a sophisticated indexing methodology that tracks students from enrolment to graduation, qualifications upon entry are compared with the award that a student receives at the end of their studies”.


This is interesting to me as a teacher because when I worked in the UK school system, I saw at first hand how the quality of education my school was providing could be observed by the results of students who made the greatest progress by the end of their studies. In Vietnam, parents often target schools or universities that appear to have the best results, in the belief that their children will learn more and achieve higher results. But this is not always the case. For example, the most academically oriented high schools and universities will set their entry  requirements at a level that often excludes students who are not already classified as “excellent”. By doing this, they ensure that their results remain outstanding. No surprises! For some students, however, the pace set and expectations are too much for them and they either drop out or fail. To my teacher’s mind, if we accept that children mature at different rates, and that academic success can come in a variety of ways, the most successful institutions will be those that can take a student of average or above average performance and coach them through to outstanding performance. So while you cannot get into Oxford or Cambridge unless you happen to be already in the top 2% or whatever of your peers at the age of 17-18, you can enter another Top 20  ranking university and end up with a first class degree.

Since the UK has around 150 universities and 20% of these (around 30) are in the world Top 200,  if you can find a university in the UK Top 30 with a high value added factor, you may end up doing better than if you go to a more selective university and struggle to keep up. Does that make sense? Coming back to Coventry, for example, not only is it now ranked in the Top 15, it also has one of the highest overall value-added scores in the UK Top 30- on a par with Oxford and Durham.

How to Use League Tables

Firstly, look at what is actually being measured. If you want to go to a Top 10 UK University, it is easy enough to get a list and focus on those universities. But wait. Why do you want to go to a Top 10 University? Is it because you think you have more chance of getting a better job? Or better teaching? Or resources? This is easy to test when you have all the data. Let’s take a look at the Guardian’s Top 20, for example:

Guardian 20

Imagine that your target university is, say, Imperial College London  and your reason for choosing that is because you think you will get the best teaching and feedback from your teachers. Imperial  is ranked No 8, right? So it must be good. Well, there’s no doubt that it’s an excellent university overall, but if your main concern is how satisfied students are with their course, the teaching and the quality of feedback from tutors, you may want to consider UEA or Coventry instead because their scores on these criteria are  higher. Or consider that Bath’s graduate employment record is better than Oxford’s (yes, really!). So it all depends on your focus.

And this is before we have approached the matter of subject. Let’s say you want to study Biosciences at Imperial,  for example, because Imperial is a Top 10 UK University. Just click on “Biosciences” on the subject menu and see how the rankings change:


Imperial is actually  ranked No 23 for Biosciences, so if you want a Top 10 university for Biosciences, maybe Exeter or Gloucestershire would suit you better, or even Surrey if you are targeting  London. This is a great game to play with league tables, and what it reveals is that the UK has a fantastic range of opportunities that are begging to be explored in more detail.

Determining Your Selection Criteria

For many people, when they imagine British education, they see in their minds’  eye the old heritage buildings of the traditional Oxbridge and Russell Group universities and equate this with “quality”. But “quality” is a concept that has to be broken down into tangible parts in order to make sense of its meaning to each individual. To people imagining those old, traditional, famous universities, the idea of Coventry, for example, may come as a shock!  Coventry is a modern university located in a city that was destroyed during the Second World War and almost totally rebuilt in the 1960’s and 70s. However, Coventry is in the industrial heartland of the Midlands and its links with industry and commerce in the region are second to none. In recent years the university has invested millions of pounds in the university to improve its facilities and expand its course range. The result is that in 2016, Coventry University is ranked higher overall in the Guardian’s League table than Edinburgh or Birmingham, for example to name two “famous” universities.

In English we have a saying “horses for courses”; roughly translated this means that what suits some people will not suit others and that it is best to look for the right match (according to the criteria you prioritize) rather than choose something because of its status but which may be wrong for you. So, starting with selection criteria, take one or more of the league tables and choose the criteria which are most important to you and for your subject. Then add other things such as location (if you only want London there is no need to look at other areas, for example), cost (there are huge differences in price between different universities), campus type (integrated campus or city campus), cost of living etc. Then re-order the results according to these criteria.  You will now have a shortlist of possible universities and you can research each one in more detail to fine tune to your needs and preferences.

Do Rankings Matter?

Obviously, rankings matter to some people more than others. They matter to universities sitting in the UK Top 20 or 30, which are among the best in the world and stand for everything that is great about British education. They matter in that they present standards which universities can strive to reach, and use to promote themselves with prospective students.  But in terms of your student experience or future career, they matter less than most people think.

 To an employer, for example, the ranking of your university is of much less importance than what you did with your time while you were there. If I am hiring staff and have the choice between a graduate of Cambridge with no work experience or a graduate of Coventry with  one year’s work experience on a sandwich course, and lots of holiday work experience, the ranking or reputation of the university will be less important than the transferable skills the person has.  One of the reasons why modern universities have such excellent graduate employment records is that they provide many opportunities for their students to gain relevant work experience while studying.  This is also one of the factors measured by the league tables, and  helps to explain the high ranking of modern universities such as Coventry.

Jacky’s Top Tips for Getting the Best Value for Money

Tuition fees for international students in the UK vary enormously- subjects such as Medicine, for example, typically cost around £30,000 per year, whereas a Business degree can cost anywhere between £10,000 and £18,000 depending on where you study. The most traditional, higher ranking universities tend to have higher fees, and London fees are more expensive than the rest of the country generally. The same is true of living costs- in London and the south-east, monthly living costs are from £800-£1,000 per month, but in the Midlands, North, Scotland and Wales they may be as low as £600 per month.

Tip No 1: Choose a university  in a lower living cost area and with lower fees.

Tip No 2:  Calculate your annual bill after scholarship, not the % or amount of the scholarship alone.

Scholarships are popular with students, but in reality, what matters is the final bill, not the amount of scholarship. A lower fee university with a small scholarship in a less expensive part of the country can deliver much better value than a more expensive university in London with a higher scholarship. You certainly CAN get an excellent degree from a  top UK university with good job prospects AND save money if you choose the location carefully. The table below shows annual costs for undergraduate  Architecture of 4 Top 10 subject-ranked universities. Huddersfield is ranked one place below Bath, but the difference in cost  is almost £4,000 per year. The difference in cost between Cambridge and Coventry is almost £12,000, yet Coventry has a perfect Value Added score of 10 (Cambridge 8) and higher student satisfaction scores for the course, the teaching and the quality of teacher feedback. Coventry and Huddersfield both offer £2,000 per year scholarships to Vietnamese students which are very accessible, whereas the other 2 have a more limited number of scholarships which are more difficult to obtain.

Ranking (Architecture) Tuition fees Living Costs Total per year
Bath 5 £14,700 £7,200 £21,900
Cambridge 2 £20,692 £8,100 £28,792
Coventry 10 £11,500 £5,400 £16,900 (£14,900)
Huddersfield 6 £13,000 £5,400 £18,400 (16,400)

Tip No 3: look at individual subject rankings rather than overall rankings

Tip No 4: pay careful attention to other factors such as graduate employment, value added and student satisfaction, to get a good overall impression

Tip No 5: Choose the university which ticks the most boxes for you – not the most “famous” or the most exclusive.

Happy hunting!


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