What university rankings mean

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Find out how university rankings work, what they really show and which ranking system is best at measuring the aspects you care about.

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Merits of each table Using the tables What each table measures Terminology

Why do university rankings differ from each other in different league tables, and which university ranking system is best?

All university league tables are based on a variety of measures – for example teaching quality, research quality or the ratio of staff to students. Each measure contributes a particular percentage towards a university’s score, depending on how important it is considered to be – this is called its weighting. Quite a few measures are used by more than one league table, but they are often given a different weighting.

If you're wondering which university ranking system is the most accurate or reliable, you need to consider which measures are most important to you personally. Do you care more about a university’s teaching quality or research quality? Are you more interested in its international reputation or how much it is able to help students achieve their potential? However, it’s sensible to look at more than one table so as to get the fullest possible picture and to understand how other people – including graduate recruiters – may view different universities.

TARGETcareers’ take on each university league table and its merits

Read our round-up of the strengths of each university league table. Scroll down for more detail on how each table is compiled.

The Guardian

The Guardian’s league table favours universities that students rate as being good at teaching and assessing them. It also favours those that are good at helping students who haven’t been academic high-fliers in the past to achieve success. This could still be a good thing even if you’re getting great grades at school, since it hints that the university is good at teaching.

The Guardian doesn’t include any measure of research quality or academic reputation (which are very closely linked together). Keep this in mind if you’re keen for your lecturers to be leaders in their field, to have influential research work going on around you or to study somewhere that’s a big name.

The Times and the Complete University Guide

The Times and the Complete University Guide compile their tables in a very similar way. With a few exceptions, they tend to produce similar rankings.

They favour universities that combine research strength with student satisfaction, while taking a number of other measures into account. This is helpful if you want a broad picture of a university’s success, rather than having one factor that’s particularly important to you.

Student satisfaction carries less weight than with The Guardian and covers a wider range of areas (eg facilities and organisation), not just teaching and assessment. The combination of these two factors means that teaching and assessment quality get a lot less weight overall. Meanwhile, research gets a lot less weight than it does in the QS World University Rankings (see below).

To some extent these tables may reflect the types of students who go to different universities. For example, drop-out rates are included, which are associated with factors such as what part of the country students come from and their parents’ occupations.

QS World University Rankings

The QS World University Rankings table focuses very heavily on universities’ research and reputation. However, it doesn’t include teaching quality or students’ views on any other aspects of their courses. It’s a good way of identifying ‘big names’ – but won’t indicate what your experience of studying there might be like.

This table gives some weight to the percentages of staff and students from abroad. As such, there’s likely to be a bit of a bias towards universities in locations that are attractive to those from overseas. And indeed, positions 1–9 are filled with universities in major cities, plus Oxford and Cambridge.

Things to keep in mind when using university rankings

Keep the following in mind when using university rankings to make decisions.

  • A university’s ranking doesn’t tell you whether it’s right for you. Go and visit it to find out.
  • To get a job you need experience outside your degree, such as work experience, voluntary placements or involvement in university societies (eg sport or drama). A university or town with opportunities that suit your interests might be better than somewhere higher-ranked that lacks these. See our guide to top universities for your lifestyle to identify where is good for activities you like.
  • Rankings for specific subjects can be very different from rankings for universities’ overall quality. If you’re applying for a subject that relates to the career you want, subject tables are more important and employers will pay attention to them. If you’re not, look at both – you want a good course, but employers who don’t require a specific degree will be influenced more by a university’s overall reputation. See our advice on which universities employers like for more detail.
  • In many cases there’s not much difference in score among universities that are positioned close to each other. So don’t worry about differences of a few places.
  • Lots of universities shift position a bit from year to year. This doesn’t mean that all of these universities’ scores have gone up or down – it might be the scores of universities above or below them that have changed.
  • Students’ course satisfaction will be influenced by their expectations. What’s more, The Times Good University Guide flags up that students at some types of universities, such as medium-sized campus universities, tend to rate course quality more highly than others.
  • Statistics are affected by outside factors. For example, the percentage of former students in graduate-level jobs or further study six months after graduating will be influenced by the job market in the local area and whether the university has lots of students with well off, well connected parents who can help their children find jobs.

What each university league table measures

Here’s a breakdown of which measures each league table includes and how much each measure contributes to the total score. See below for more detail about what commonly used measures mean.

The Times Good University Guide rankings 2017

  1. Students’ course satisfaction – 17%. This includes ratings of teaching, assessment and feedback, and academic support (together contributing 11% of the total score), and organisation and management, learning resources, personal development and overall satisfaction (together contributing 5%).
  2. Research quality – 17%
  3. Entry standards – 11%
  4. Staff-student ratio – 11%
  5. Services and facilities spend – 11%
  6. Degree completion (whether students drop out) – 11%
  7. Good honours (whether students get a good grade) – 11%
  8. Graduate career prospects – 11%

The Guardian rankings 2017

  1. Students’ course satisfaction – 25%. This includes only ratings of teaching (contributing 10% of overall score), assessment and feedback (10%) and overall satisfaction (5%).
  2. Value added – 16%
  3. Staff-student ratio – 16%
  4. Entry standards – 16%
  5. Graduate career prospects – 16%
  6. Expenditure per student – 10%

‘Value added’ scores how good a grade students get in their degrees, compared with how well they might be have been expected to do given the qualifications and grades they had when they started university. A high score suggests that a university is doing a good job of helping students who enter university with lower grades to achieve their potential.

QS World University Rankings 2016–2017

  1. Academic reputation – 40%
  2. Citations per faculty (how often a university’s research work is quoted) – 20%
  3. Staff-student ratio – 20%
  4. Employer reputation – 10%
  5. Percentage of staff from other countries – 5%
  6. Percentage of students from other countries – 5%

‘Employer reputation’ is measured by surveying employers worldwide as to ‘the universities they perceive to be producing the best graduates’. Extra weight is given to universities that are mentioned by employers from other countries.

The Complete University Guide 2017

  1. Students’ course satisfaction – 17%
  2. Research – 17%. Split into research quality (11%) and research intensity (6%).
  3. Entry standards – 11%
  4. Graduate career prospects – 11%
  5. Staff-student ratio – 11%
  6. Good honours (whether students get a good grade) – 11%
  7. Degree completion (whether students drop out) – 11%
  8. Academic services spend – 6%
  9. Facilities spend – 6%

What the measures used in university rankings really mean

How do the various university rankings measure student satisfaction, or research quality? We’ve put them under the microscope – here’s a breakdown of the different measures used to help you understand how unis are being assessed.

Students’ course satisfaction

Students’ course satisfaction is measured by the National Student Survey (NSS). This takes place each year in the UK and asks undergraduates to say how much they agree with different statements about the quality of their course. There are sections on different topics, which change a bit from year to year but in 2016 included:

  • Teaching (eg ‘Staff are good at explaining things’)
  • Assessment and feedback (eg ‘I have received detailed comments on my work’)
  • Academic support (eg ‘I have been able to contact staff when I needed to’)
  • Organisation and management (eg ‘The course is well organised and is running smoothly’)
  • Learning resources (eg ‘The library resources and services are good enough for my needs’)
  • Personal development (eg ‘The course has helped me present myself with confidence’)
  • Overall satisfaction with the course.

Research quality, academic reputation and citations per faculty

Research quality is usually measured by the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This assesses the quality of research carried out at each UK university and the percentage of academic staff involved in research (known as ‘research intensity’ – this is viewed as a good thing). It’s conducted every few years.

The QS World University Rankings don’t use the REF (as it’s only carried out in the UK) but do look at universities’ reputations for research. This is done in two ways. ‘Academic reputation’ is measured by surveying academics in different universities worldwide as to ‘where they believe the best work is currently taking place within their own field of expertise’. ‘Citations per faculty’ counts how many times research produced by that university is referred to in other academic work – the greater the number, the more respected the research is assumed to be.

Staff-student ratios

Staff-student ratios measure how many students there are per member of academic staff. Having fewer students per staff member is seen as being good, as in theory it means more attention for each student.

Entry standards

Entry standards measure how many UCAS points students had when they started university.

Spending per student

Spending per student measures how much money is spent on students, divided by the number of students. Depending on the league table, this might only include things that directly relate to study (eg libraries and IT hardware and software) or could include broader spending (eg on the careers service or sports).

Graduate career prospects

This looks at the percentage of students who were in a graduate-level job or undertaking further study six months after graduating.

Degree completion

Degree completion is based on the percentage of students expected to finish their degree, rather than dropping out.

Good honours

This measures the percentage of students who get a first or a 2.1 – the top two grades you can be awarded in your degree.

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