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Rankings of universities in the United Kingdom

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Rankings of universities in the United Kingdom

Three national rankings of universities in the United Kingdom are published annually – by The Complete University Guide, The Guardian and jointly by The Times and The Sunday Times. Rankings have also been produced in the past by The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times.

The primary aim of the rankings is to inform potential undergraduate applicants about UK universities based on a range of criteria, including entry standards, student satisfaction, staff/student ratio, academic services and facilities expenditure per student, research quality, proportion of Firsts and 2:1s, completion rates and student destinations.[1][2] All of the league tables also rank universities on their strength in individual subjects.


The following rankings of British universities are produced annually:

The Complete University Guide

The Complete University Guide is compiled by Mayfield University Consultants (which had previously compiled university rankings for The Times).[3] It was published for the first time in The Daily Telegraph in 2007, when it was known as The Good University Guide, and was produced in association with The Independent from 2008 to 2011.[4]

The ranking uses nine criteria, with a statistical technique called the Z-transformation applied to the results of each.[5] The nine Z-scores are then weighted (by 1.5 for student satisfaction and research assessment, and 1.0 for the rest) and summed to give a total score for each university. These total scores are then transformed to a scale where the top score is set at 1,000, with the remainder being a proportion of the top score. The nine criteria are:

  • "Academic services spend" – the expenditure per student on all academic services (data source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA));
  • "Completion" – a measure of the completion rate of students (data source: HESA);
  • "Entry standards" – the average UCAS tariff score of new students under the age of 21 (data source: HESA);
  • "Facilities spend" – the expenditure per student on staff and student facilities (data source: HESA);
  • "Good honours" – the proportion of firsts and upper seconds (data source: HESA);
  • "Graduate prospects" – a measure of the employability of graduates (data source: HESA);
  • "Research assessment/quality" – a measure of the average quality of research (data source: 2008 Research Assessment Exercise - note HESA have required the compilers to publish a disclaimer on the way that HESA data has been used with RAE data[6] );
  • "Student satisfaction" – a measure of the view of students on the teaching quality (data source: the National Student Survey); and
  • "Student:staff ratio" – a measure of the average staffing level (data source: HESA).
The most recent league table (2015) ranked the top 30 British universities as follows:[7]
Rank (1-10) University Rank (11-20) University Rank (21-30) University
1 [Swansea University ] 11 University of Lancaster 21 University of Edinburgh
2 University of Oxford 12 University of Surrey 22 University of Kent
3 London School of Economics 13 Loughborough University 23 Cardiff University
4 University of St Andrews 14 University of York 23 University of Leeds
5 Durham University 15 University of East Anglia 23 University of Nottingham
6 Imperial College 16 University of Southampton 26 University of Sheffield
7 University of Warwick 17 University of Birmingham 27 Aston University
8 University of Bath 18 University of Bristol 28 King's College London
9 University College London 19 University of Leicester 29 University of Manchester
10 University of Exeter 20 Newcastle University 30 University of Glasgow

The Guardian

The Guardian's ranking uses eight different criteria, each weighted between 5 and 17 per cent. Unlike other annual rankings of British universities, the criteria do not include a measure of research output.[8] A "value-added" factor is included which compares students' degree results with their entry qualifications, described by the newspaper as being "[b]ased upon 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".[1] The eight criteria are:[1]

  • "Entry score" (17%);
  • "Feedback" – as rated by graduates of the course (5%);
  • "Job prospects" (17%) (data source: Destination of Leavers from Higher Education);
  • "Overall quality" – final-year students opinions about the overall quality of their course (data source: the National Student Survey);
  • "Spending per student" (17%);
  • "Staff/student ratio" (17%);
  • "Teaching quality" – as rated by graduates of the course (10%) (data source: the National Student Survey); and
  • "Value added" (17%).
The most recent league table (2015) ranked the top 30 British universities as follows:[9]
Rank (1-10) University Rank (11-20) University Rank (21-30) University
1 University of Cambridge 11 University College London 21 University of Leicester
2 University of Oxford 12 University of Exeter 22 Aston University
3 University of St Andrews 13 Heriot-Watt University 23 University of Nottingham
4 University of Bath 14 University of East Anglia 24 SOAS
5 Imperial College London 15 Loughborough University 25 University of Glasgow
6 University of Surrey 16 University of York 26 University of Cardiff
7 London School of Economics 17 University of Birmingham 27 Coventry University
8 Durham University 18 University of Edinburgh 28 University of Leeds
9 University of Warwick 19 University of Southampton 28 Newcastle University
10 University of Lancaster 20 University of Kent 30 University of Reading

The Sunday Times

The Sunday Times university league table ranks institutions using the following eight criteria:[10]

  • "Student satisfaction (+50 to -55 points)" – the results of national student surveys are scored taking a theoretical minimum and maximum score of 50% and 90% respectively (data source: the National Student Survey);
  • "Teaching excellence (250)" – defined as: subjects scoring at least 22/24 points, those ranked excellent, or those undertaken more recently in which there is confidence in academic standards and in which teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources have all been ranked commendable (data source: Quality Assurance Agency; Scottish Higher Education Funding Council; Higher Education Funding Council for Wales);
  • "Heads'/peer assessments (100)" – school heads are asked to identify the highest-quality undergraduate provision (data source: The Sunday Times heads' survey and peer assessment);
  • "Research quality (200)" – based upon the most recent Research Assessment Exercise (data source: Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce));
  • "A-level/Higher points (250)" – nationally audited data for the susbsequent academic year are used for league table calculations (data source: HESA);
  • "Unemployment (100)" – the number of students assume to be unemployed six months after graduation is calculated as a percentage of the total number of known destinations (data source: HESA, Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education);
  • "Firsts/2:1s awarded (100)" – the percentage of students who graduate with firsts or 2:1 degrees; unclassified degrees are excluded (data source: HESA); and
  • "Dropout rate (+57 to -74 points)" – the number of students who drop out before completing their courses is compared with the number expected to do so (the benchmark figure shown in brackets) (data source: Hefce, Performance Indicators in Higher Education).

The Times

The Times university rankings take into account eight criteria.[11] The Student Satisfaction and Research criteria are weighted by 1.5 and then each of the eight criteria scores are multiplied by 10 in order to give each university a final score out of 1,000. The criteria are:

  • "Completion" – the percentage of students who manage to complete their degree;
  • "Entry standards" – the average UCAS tariff score (data source: HESA);
  • "Facilities spending" – the average expenditure per student on sports, careers services, health and counselling;
  • "Good honours" – the percentage of students graduating with a first or 2.1;
  • "Graduate prospects" – the percentage of UK graduates in graduate employment or further study (data source: HESA's survey of Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE));
  • "Library and computing spending" – the average expenditure on library and computer services per student (data source: HESA);
  • "Research" (data source: 2008 Research Assessment Exercise);
  • "Student satisfaction" (data source: National Student Survey); and
  • "Student-staff ratio" (data source: HESA).

Disparity with global rankings

It has been commented by The Sunday Times that a number of universities which regularly feature in the top ten of British university league tables, such as global university rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities, QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education World University Rankings. International university rankings primarily use criteria such as academic and employer surveys, the number of citations per faculty, the proportion of international staff and students and faculty and alumni prize winners.[13][14][15] The national rankings, on the other hand, give most weighting to the undergraduate student experience, taking account of teaching quality and learning resources, together with the quality of a university's intake, employment prospects, research quality and dropout rates.[1][16]

The disparity between national and international league tables has caused some institutions to offer public explanations for the difference. LSE for example states on its website that 'we remain concerned that all of the global rankings - by some way the most important for us, given our highly international orientation - suffer from inbuilt biases in favour of large multi-faculty universities with full STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) offerings, and against small, specialist, mainly non-STEM universities such as LSE.'[17]


UK university rankings have been subject to various criticisms.

Accuracy and neutrality

There has been criticism of attempts to combine different rankings on for example research quality, quality of teaching, drop out rates and student satisfaction. Sir Alan Wilson, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds argues that the final average has little significance and is like trying to 'combine apples and oranges.'[18] Other criticisms he made included the varying weights given to different factors, the need for universities to 'chase' the rankings, the often fluctuating nature of a university's ranking, and the catch-22 that the government's desire to increase access can have negative effects on league table rankings.[18]

The Guardian suggests that league tables may affect the nature of undergraduate admissions in an attempt to improve a university's league table position.[19]

Roger Brown, the former Vice Chancellor of Southampton Solent University argues the limitations of comparative data when comparing Universities.[20]

Professor Geoffrey Alderman writing in the Guardian makes the point that by including the percentage of 'good honours' this can encourage grade inflation so that league table position can be maintained.[21]

The rankings are also criticised for not giving a full picture of higher education in the United Kingdom. There are institutions which focus on research and enjoy a prestigious reputation but are not shown in the table for various reasons. For example, the Institute of Education, University of London, is not usually listed in the undergraduate rankings despite the fact that it offers an undergraduate B.Ed and is generally recognised as one of the best institutions offering teacher training and Education studies (for example, being given joint first place, alongside Oxford University, in the 2008 Research Assessment 'Education' subject rankings, according to both Times Higher Education and the Guardian).[22][23]

Full-time bias

League Tables, which usually focus on the full-time undergraduate student experience, commonly omit reference to Birkbeck, University of London, and the Open University, both of which specialise in teaching part-time students. These universities, however, often make a strong showing in specialist league tables looking at research, teaching quality, and student satisfaction. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, according to the Times Higher Education, Birkbeck was placed equal 33rd, and the Open University 43rd, out of 132 institutions.[24] And the 2009 student satisfaction survey placed the Open University 3rd and Birkbeck 13th out of 153 universities and higher education institutions (1st and 6th, respectively, among multi-faculty universities).[25]


  1. ^ a b c d "The Guardian University League Table 2011 – Methodology". London: The Guardian. 8 June 2010. Retrieved 15 September 2010. 
  2. ^ "The University League Table methodology 2011". The Complete University Guide. Retrieved 15 September 2010. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ League Table Methodology – Complete University Guide
  5. ^ League Table Key – Complete University Guide
  6. ^ "The Complete University Guide 2014 methodology".  
  7. ^ "The Complete University Guide 2015".  
  8. ^ MacLeod, Donald (1 May 2007). "What the tables mean". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  9. ^ "University guide 2015: University league table". The Guardian (London). 2 June 2015. 
  10. ^ "How the guide was compiled". The Times (London). 11 September 2011. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  11. ^ "University league table 2007". The Times (London). 5 June 2006. Retrieved 7 May 2010. (subscription required)
  12. ^ Thomas, Zoe (11 October 2009). "UK universities top the league table in Europe". London: The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 28 September 2010. 
  13. ^ "About ARWU". Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. Retrieved 15 September 2010. 
  14. ^ "QS World University Rankings 2010". QS Quacquarelli Symonds Limited. Retrieved 15 September 2010. 
  15. ^ "Global rankings system methodology reflects universities' core missions". Times Higher Education. 7 September 2010. Retrieved 15 September 2010. 
  16. ^ "The University League Table methodology 2011". The Complete University Guide. Retrieved 28 September 2010. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b Reporter 485 | 28 October 2002 | University league tables
  19. ^ MacLeod, Donald (19 April 2007). "Funding council to investigate university league tables". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  20. ^ Brown, Roger (10 April 2007). "Tables can turn". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  21. ^ Alderman, Geoffrey (24 April 2007). "League tables rule - and standards inevitably fall". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  22. ^ Times Higher Education RAE tables
  23. ^ Guardian RAE results for 'Education' subject area
  24. ^ Times Higher Education RAE 2008 tables
  25. ^ BBC league table of student satisfaction survey

External links

  • The Complete University Guide
  • University League Tables
  • Guardian University Guide
  • The Sunday Times University Guide
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