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Understanding UK University Rankings

A key criterion for many international students when choosing a university is rankings. Understanding an institution’s position in global and UK university rankings can be a helpful way to evaluate the quality of teaching, student experience, research, and career prospects post-graduation. 


Unfortunately the variety of different ranking systems and league tables can make what should be a simple task rather challenging. In addition to this, while university rankings are a source of prestige, they aren’t always an indicator of the best school for a specific individual. 


In this article we will explore the different global and UK university ranking systems so that you can follow the information that is most important to you, and ultimately make an informed decision on where you choose to study. 


University rankings: A strong indicator of value? 


Around the world, the leading universities battle it out year-on-year to be top of every league table. This is no different for UK universities. 


The systems for ranking universities are far from purely academic. They also include criteria such as student experience and satisfaction, employment opportunities following graduation, and the value-added services that universities provide. 


Each ranking system uses slightly different criteria, and therefore the league table that you choose to follow will depend on what is important to you. 

For example, you might be choosing to study at a UK university to secure a specific job following graduation, or you might be especially focussed on the life experiences that it will give you, or perhaps it’s purely about the quality of the education you will receive. There is no right answer here, and therefore it is worth thinking about your motivations for choosing to apply to university in the UK before finding a university ranking that you think is a good indicator of the value you’ll receive. 


University rankings: Global or local? 


There are two main global university ranking systems as well as UK rankings that you could choose to refer to. 


For many international students, the UK will not be the only country that they consider studying in, and therefore having a view of where a university sits in a global ranking can be helpful. 


In addition to this, should a student decide that the UK is where they want to be, there are three established UK university ranking systems. 


Let’s consider the global rankings first: 


1.    QS World University Rankings 

Quacquarelli Symmonds (QS) is a leading global provider of services, analytics and insights in the global higher education sector.  Since 2004 QS has produced its World University Ranking, which is viewed more than 149 million times each year and receives over 94,000 citations annually.  


The QS World University Rankings allow you to pivot by country, subject, and level of study, giving a comprehensive comparison of institutions and courses of study internationally. Their methodology focuses on weighted averages of the following areas:

-       Academic peer review (40%) 

-       Faculty/student ratio (20%) 

-       Citations per faculty (20%) 

-       Employer reputation (10%) 

-       International student ratio (5%) 

-       International faculty ratio (5%) 


The academic peer review element has been a subject of controversy in the past, as QS relies on a combination of purchased mailing lists, applications, and suggestions. In 2022, QS surveyed the opinions of more than 75,000 individuals for this part of their ranking process. 


2.    Times Higher Education World Rankings

The Times Higher Education (THE) World Rankings is a UK-based system of comparison that compares more than 1,500 institutions in over 90 countries. This makes them the largest and most diverse university ranking system available. 


The THE World Rankings rely on 18 performance indicators, grouped into five categories:

-       Industry income – innovation

-       International outlook – staff, students and research

-       Teaching – the learning environment

-       Research environment – volume, income, and reputation 

-       Research quality – the outputs of research 


UK university rankings 


In The UK, there are three established league tables: The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide, The Guardian University Guide and The Complete University Guide. Each of these ranks both institutions and their subjects using a unique set of criteria. Let’s take a look at each of them individually: 

1.    The Times & Sunday Times Good University Guide 

The Times/Sunday Times ranking evaluates UK universities using six criteria. These aim to provide a cross-section of university performance, including criteria such as entry requirements, student satisfaction and teaching excellence. Each item is assigned a weighted point score. 


The scoring criteria for The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide are: 

1.    Student satisfaction (+50 to -55 points) 

2.    Teaching excellence (out of 250) 

3.    Heads’/peer assessment (out of 100)

4.    Research quality (out of 200) 

5.    A-level/Higher points (out of 250) 

6.    Unemployment (out of 100) 


The Times/Sunday Times also produces a ‘table of tables’ which aggregates the three UK university league tables. 


2.    The Guardian University Guide

The Guardian University Guide uses a system of eight criteria, which are weighted between 5 and 15%. These are designed to cover all stages of the UK university student cycle. The Guardian ranks 54 separate subjects in order to provide an evaluation of how likely each department within a university is to provide a positive all-round student experience. 

The Guardian University Guide’s scoring criteria are: 

1.    Entry standards (15%) 

2.    Student-staff ratio (15%) 

3.    Career prospects (15%) 

4.    Student satisfaction (10%) 

5.    Overall satisfaction (10%)

6.    Expenditure per student (5%)

7.    Value added (15%) 

8.    Continuation (15%) 

3.    The Complete University Guide 

The Complete University Guide uses a statistical method called the Z-transformation to provide a ranking of universities. Using data accessible in the public domain, The Complete University Guide reviews each university against ten criteria, and assigns each of them a standardised ‘z-score’ (between 0.5 and 1.5) which ensures that each measure contributes the same to the overall outcome. 


The ten criteria that The Complete University Guide uses are: 

1.    Academic services spend (0.5) 

2.    Continuation (1.0)

3.    Entry standards (1.0) 

4.    Facilities spend (0.5) 

5.    Graduate prospects ​​– on track (0.33)

6.    Graduate prospects ​​– outcomes (0.67)

7.    Research quality (1.0) 

8.    Research intensity (0.5) 

9.    Student satisfaction (1.5) 

10. Student-staff ratio (1.0) 


University rankings: Choose the criteria that matter to you


The volume and complexity of the different university rankings can be overwhelming. When taken in isolation, however, they are more understandable – and when you break each ranking down into its component criteria it’s possible to see which ones include the factors that are important to you – and which are not. 


By choosing to follow a university ranking that considers the elements of student life that matter the most to you, you will be able to cut through the noise of all of the other league tables and focus on the information that is important to you. 


We recommend using rankings as one part of your research, along with University Admissions Talks, which will give you an in-depth look at each university you are considering.


If you would like to learn more about our free University Admissions Talks, please get in touch

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