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Choosing where to study

What are university rankings?

Get to know what the university rankings are, why we create them and what you should look out for when using them.

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Where do the league tables come from?

The team behind the Complete University Guide has created online league tables to help students make informed university choices since 2007. We use data that’s publicly available about universities and how they perform in a range of different areas. After the data goes through a specific set of calculations, we put it all together in ranking tables. These tables show you the many strengths of institutions throughout the UK.

The main league table demonstrates the overall performance of a university or college. The subject tables are more specific to subject areas and courses. Over the years we have added new subject tables as more data becomes available and niche areas become more common. Both the main table and subject tables allow you to filter by various measures, so you can reorder the results and see how universities compare to each other.

Who are the university rankings for?

The university rankings are primarily for prospective undergraduate students, as we use undergraduate data. They can be a really useful tool for considering where you want to study.

Postgraduate students also use our tables to get a good idea of how a university performs overall in their subject area.

Many other people use our rankings too, such as teachers, parents, guardians, careers advisors and universities themselves.

How do the rankings work?

We choose the measures in our rankings carefully. Although limited by the data that is publically available, we use what we believe best demonstrates a university’s performance and is most useful for students when choosing where to study.

The measures we use are:

  • Entry standards: average UCAS points of students entering the university
  • Student satisfaction: how satisfied students say they are with the university
  • Research quality: to what extent departments are led by experts who are conducting good research
  • Research intensity: the proportion of staff involved in research at a university
  • Graduate prospects – outcomes: how employable a student is after graduating
  • Graduate prospects – on track: whether a recent graduate agrees that their current activity fits with their future plans
  • Academic services spend: how much a university spends on academic services, such as libraries
  • Facilities spend: how much a university spends on student and staff facilities, such as sports
  • Degree completion: how many students successfully complete their degree
  • Student-staff ratio:  the average number of students to each academic staff member

The subject tables specifically show the quality of university ubject areas so you can hone into the areas that are relevant to you. They involve some of the same measures as the main table: entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality, research intensity and graduate prospects. However, a university’s performance can look very different on the subject tables in comparison to the main table.

Fluctuation and bunching

Universities naturally and often fluctuate in their positioning in the league tables from year to year. This is more apparent in the subject tables where data sets are smaller. The positioning changes as universities perform better or worse in different measures.

Bunching also regularly happens. This is when rankings are separated by very small differences. A university that ranks several places higher than another may actually have a closer score than is at first apparent. Small changes in data from one year to the next can look like quite a dramatic change to a university’s ranking, but it’s usually not something to worry about.

What should I look out for when using the league tables?

When making your university choices, it’s useful to look closely at the subject tables more so than the main table. They let you focus on your specific area of study, rather than the university as a whole.

The subject tables are especially important for institutions that offer a select few courses. A more modern university that only offers art degrees, for instance, may perform well in the Art & Design subject table, but not so well in the overall league table. This may be due to the specific courses and facilities it has on offer, or the fact it’s yet to develop research to the same level as more established institutions.

Our university league tables are useful, but they shouldn’t be the only thing you look at when you are choosing a university. They are there as a guide and can help you when cutting down a long list of options. They should be used alongside other decision-making methods such as:

  • Looking at prospectuses or websites showing what a university has to offer, such as course modules, extracurricular opportunities or the local area
  • Visiting universities on open days, as it’s best to experience the university first-hand
  • Using other websites, such as student review site Whatuni
  • Speaking to current students and graduates

Remember, where you go to university should be your choice. You can listen to advice from other people, but ultimately it should be your decision, as you’ll be the person who experiences it.

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