Understanding University League Tables

With so many resources, choosing a university can be tough! Luckily, we can show you how to use league tables to your advantage.

What are league tables?

League tables are a compilation of data about universities to help prospective students compare and evaluate institutions around the world. Originally part of newspaper supplements league tables are now accessed mostly online. Many league tables are free to use although some require a subscription.

Assessing league tables is one way to research potential universities that you are interested in. The basic idea behind these tables is to provide a wide, overall perspective of universities to inform your research. Many students use league tables to quickly find out about the top institutions in a particular country as a starting point to their research. While league tables are sometimes criticized, they are still a useful resource to accompany other forms of research.

You may be familiar with some of the main league tables but here are a few popular international league tables:

  • The Academic Ranking of World Universities
  • The Times Higher Education World University Rankings
  • QS World University Rankings
  • Universitas 21

National league tables include:

  • The Complete University Guide (UK)
  • The Guardian (UK)
  • The Good Universities Guide (Australia)
  • MacLean’s Guide to Canadian Universities (Canada)
  • US News America’s Best Colleges (USA)

Many league tables use their own methodology which could lead to differences in what they choose to emphasize. For example, QS World University Rankings places a 40% weight on the academic quality of an institution whereas The Guardian attributes 25% to student satisfaction. These measurements are known as performance indicators, which can include entry standards, research intensity, graduate prospects and degree completion. It is important to check which indicators are chosen by each league table before making any final decisions as they may not reflect your interests.

How to use league tables

The key to using league tables effectively is to tailor them to your preferences. So, if you are a post-graduate student, you may be particularly interested in research facilities and the reputation of the institution, compared to an undergraduate student who may focus more on student satisfaction or graduate prospects.

One top tip is to use several league tables during your research to evaluate universities instead of relying on just one. From there you can then combine the different indicators used by league tables for a broader perspective. For example, as an international student you will also need to consider which countries offer student visas and how far that country is from your home. These factors are not included in league tables!

League table indicators

As mentioned, league tables consider different aspects of universities which can affect where institutions place in the table. While it may seem obvious, universities differ in their strengths and weaknesses, which is why its worth also using student surveys and university websites deciding on an institution.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings takes data from institutions and focuses on the following performance indicators:

  • Teaching
  • Research
  • Citations
  • International outlook
  • Industry value

Other league tables also consider:

  • Graduate employment
  • Student life
  • Cost of living
  • Ethical and environmental factors
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Subject quality

The Complete University Guide uses data from The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to inform its tables. According to Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP-Connect: “These independent and unbiased league tables are used by almost a million applicants and their advisers monthly and are, as importantly, also well respected by the universities themselves for their accuracy and stability.”

What to watch out for

When comparing where universities place in league tables, it is important to remember that there can be very little difference between each score in some tables. Put simply, don’t necessarily rule out a university that you like because of where it falls in a league table, as other factors may be more important to you such as the university societies, the location and the weather!