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. All of the league tables also rank universities on their strength in individual subjects.
Each year since 2008, Times Higher Education has compiled a “Table of Tables” to combine the results of the 3 mainstream league tables. In 2015, the top 5 universities were the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of St Andrews with the London School of Economics and Imperial College London tied for 4th place. The 5 universities also claim the top 5 positions in the ranking of British universities by national reputation. In 2015, they were the only universities in the UK to not have places available in either clearing or adjustment and in 2014, the 5 universities occupied the top 5 positions for the entry tariff of its students.
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). 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.
The ranking uses nine criteria, with a statistical technique called the Z-transformation applied to the results of each. 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 );
- "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 (2016) ranked the top 50 (out of 126) British universities as follows:
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. 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". The eight criteria are:
- "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 (2016) ranked the top 50 (out of 119) British universities as follows:
The Sunday Times
The Sunday Times university league table, known as the Good University Guide, is published in both electronic and print format and ranks institutions using the following eight criteria:
- "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 subsequent 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 desbefore 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 university rankings take into account eight criteria. 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 St Andrews and LSE (in the case of LSE 3rd to 7th nationally whilst only 328th in the US News & World Report Rankings / 71st in the QS Rankings / 34th in the THE Rankings), "inhabit surprisingly low ranks in the worldwide tables", whilst other universities such as Manchester and KCL "that failed to do well in the domestic rankings have shone much brighter on the international stage". The considerable disparity in rankings has been attributed to the different methodology and purpose of 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. 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.
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.'
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.' 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. Further worries have been expressed regarding marketing strategies and propaganda used to chase tables undermining Universities values. 
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.
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).
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. 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).
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- Times Higher Education RAE tables
- Guardian RAE results for 'Education' subject area
- Times Higher Education RAE 2008 tables
- BBC league table of student satisfaction survey
- The Complete University Guide
- University League Tables
- Guardian University Guide
- The Sunday Times University Guide (password-protected)