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League tables (from the Guardian 2017)

Why League Tables Matter - And Why They Don’t

Okay, so you’re applying to university, and you got a choice to make: what am I going to go? There are lots of universities and thousands of courses, so it may well seem a pretty daunting prospect. Where do you turn for quality information about how to make a choice?

Well, league tables are one real source. But what do the really show? Who’s behind them? How do they work? Why do different tables show the same university with different rank positions? Can you trust them, and if you can, what can you trust them for?

Here’s a video to introduce the subject of league tables:


Who writes league tables?

Let’s start with the basics. Who writes these things? They are often published through newspapers (the Times and the Guardian being good examples), but the Complete University Guide is a stand-alone organisations that works with multiple media outlets. Those three are the most well established comprehensive guides to UK universities. The people behind the guides are usually researchers employed by the paper/organisation publishing their guide, but at arms’ length from any editorial influence. My experience of dealing with them over the years (I have worked with them closely as a member of the steering group of one of the big three) is that they are people with a real interest in supporting applicants. Some of the people behind the Complete University Guide, for example, started off in careers advice. So I do consider the tables sensible and, just as importantly, ethical sources of information sensitive to applicant needs.

Can you trust the tables?

Okay, so what are they actually measuring? All of the data used in the main league tables (the Guardian, The Times and the Complete University Guide) is submitted to or collected by official bodies in one way or another. It is subject to rigorous quality checks and audits, and is relied on by the Government to support policy-making. It is, in short, recognised as some of the best data about Higher Education in the world. It can be trusted. It is also worth noting that, in these days of new providers, any institution appearing on the tables will have met significant quality thresholds and is subject to full scrutiny. If a place you are thinking about going to isn’t on the tables, that isn’t necessarily bad, but you might pause to ask yourself (or indeed them) why? Similarly, if you are looking at a table that is not one of the big three, look at it closely. It may be a good table showing you something that you might be interested in, or it may have very little real data behind it.

How do the tables work, and how can a university have different ranks in different tables?

Right, into the detail. A university (or a subject it teaches if we are looking at a subject table) is given a rank. UEA, where I work, was ranked 14th in the UK in the Complete University Guide published in 2016. Pretty good, but how did we get there? A table is made up of individual indicators, things that the guide compilers think are useful for prospective students to know. The National Student Survey, a satisfaction survey conducted across all final year students nationally, is a key source of information for indicators, and often is used to create more than one indicator in each table. So is data about likely graduate job prospects, the amount of tariff an average student had on entry, as well as much else besides. Different tables have slightly different indicators (the Guardian, for example, has no data on research and focuses more on teaching and student satisfaction than the other main tables).

Straight away that explains some of the differences between tables – how can a university be, for example, 10th in one, but 17th in another? The tables choose different parts of the data that they have available to them to include or exclude. But it goes further. A table usually has 8 to 10 of these core indicators, and each indicator is worth a certain amount of each institution’s final score (it is the final score that the overall rank is based on). In the Complete University Guide, for example, student satisfaction is worth three times as much of the total university score as, say, academic services spend. It is worth paying real attention to these weightings – they vary from table to table, and so is the other main reason a university may have different rankings across the different tables.

It is also worth noting that the subject tables function in pretty much the same way. The Complete and the Times choose a subset of their indicators to construct their subject tables, the Guardian uses all its indicators at both institutional and subject level. The problem for all league tables (and other sources of course and subject level like KIS, come to that), is that data is ‘aggregated’ – lumped together to make the indicators reasonably valid. For example, a university’s performance in a subject table may be an average of activity across multiple courses, and perhaps multiple departments.

How should I use them?

So what do you do now? Well, the tables do give you a good starting point. They are a first stop in deciding on a short list of institutions that you are interested in, and the subject tables give you a broad indication of a given institution’s strengths and weaknesses. But do think flexibly. Consider the indicators that are of most interest to you. Is it student satisfaction – a sense that you will be well-taught, and will be happy with your degree? Is it your prospects of a graduate job? Most tables now allow you to rank the individual indicators, strong to weak, so look at how the institutions you are interested in do on those measures, and compare across tables.

Do, though, beware of averages scores, and methodological small print. Graduate prospects is a statistic to be a little wary of – it is generated from a census only six months after graduation, and this typically disadvantages arts graduates, but conceals many rich and valuable things recent graduates may be doing. I myself would have failed that particular test after finished my degree, but was nonetheless doing something that I have never regretted, and which helped me develop a very worthwhile professional career. Entry standards is another good case in point. At both institutional and subject table level, these are average entry standards NOT a minimum requirement. They also only count some students in the total. Over-21s are excluded, for example. Whatever you do, don’t rule out an institution because you think their entry standards are higher than you are likely to be able to achieve without talking to that institution first. In short, seek out the methodology of the tables you are using (they all publish them) and be sure that you understand the basis of the information you are looking at. It may contain more, or indeed less, than you think.

And that leads me onto, perhaps, the most important point of all. I have studied and worked at many institutions, and all were very diverse places with distinct feels, cultures, and student bodies that were very different in each. Researching and visiting institutions can be an expensive and time consuming task. The tables are invaluable in narrowing the search so it is manageable, but alongside the tables you should use other sources like an institution’s own website and prospectus to help you to target top picks. After that, there is absolutely nothing to compare with walking out onto a campus that might, potentially, be where you are going to study, and talking to staff, talking to students. Applicant days and open days are a must – even if it’s raining – and if you find a place that doesn’t quite fit what you thought the data in the tables told you, but feels like it fits you, then fling the tables in the bin, because you’ve probably found ‘the one’.

EDITOR’S NOTE – The Times league table is not linked to here as it sits behind a paywall.

Posted by Garrick Fincham on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Garrick Fincham originally trained as an archaeologist, working for some years in the field, and getting his PhD from Leicester in 2001. He worked for a while as an Education Officer in the museum sector, and published on how to kick-start education initiatives in museums libraries and archives. He has also worked in Adult Education as a researcher for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, helping to make the NIACE submission to the Foster Review of FE. He moved to UEA in 2005, where he has analysed league tables and been involved in institutional performance monitoring. He is also a member of a steering group for a national league table.

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