How university rankings work

What are university rankings, how are they calculated and are rankings important when selecting the right university for you?

Universities are ranked into league tables, determined by several different factors – including student satisfaction, academic research quality, ratio of staff to students and graduate prospects.

These factors are combined to form a final score, which differs between the league tables depending on how much weight each factor has depending on the focus of the rankings system.

There are over 20 ranking systems globally, all of which rely on different combinations of measures, so how do you know which university ranking league tables to look at and which are most useful to you?

This will come down to what is most important to you, your field of study and what you want to get out of your university experience.

How do university rankings work and what league is the best?

When you compare the different university rankings, you might wonder why they are so different. As each one prioritises different areas of interest and factors, it is important to understand the breakdown of how each university ranking is determined.

For example, the University of Edinburgh is ranked 30th in the Times Higher Education Rankings, but 13th on the Guardian University Guide – which one is correct?

The Times ranking looks at student demographics, research quality and final grades at an international level, comparing over 500 universities worldwide.

The Guardian compares 121 UK universities, based on student satisfaction, cost and postgraduate paths.

So, if you’re already thinking about your career after university, you are on a budget or want to know what existing students think about their university experience, then you would probably want to consider the Guardian. If academic research in your area of study is important, then the Times might be a better source of information.

Understanding the objectives of the different ranking systems will help you to identify and consider the factors that are most important to you when it is time to choose where to apply.

Two students sitting outside a prestigious looking building and a fountain. The two students have their back to the camera.

How are university rankings calculated?

Take a look at how the different university ranking systems are calculated and see where your priorities fit within those. The breakdown of the top UK league tables are as follows:

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings

  • Students’ course satisfaction – 17%.
  • Research quality – 17%
  • Entry standards – 11%
  • Staff to student ratio – 11%
  • Services and facilities spend – 11%
  • Degree completion (whether students drop out) – 11%
  • Good honours (whether students get a good grade) – 11%
  • Graduate career prospects – 11%

The Guardian University Guide

  • Students’ course satisfaction – 25%.
  • Difference in predicted vs. final grade – 16%
  • Staff to student ratio – 16%
  • Entry standards – 16%
  • Graduate career prospects – 16%
  • Expenditure per student – 10%

QS Top Universities

  • Academic reputation – 40%
  • Citations of academic research per faculty – 20%
  • Staff to student ratio – 20%
  • Employer reputation – 10%
  • Percentage of staff from other countries – 5%
  • Percentage of students from other countries – 5%

The Complete University Guide

  • Students’ course satisfaction – 17%
  • Research – 17%
  • Entry standards – 11%
  • Graduate career prospects – 11%
  • Staff to student ratio – 11%
  • Final grades – 11%
  • Number of student dropouts – 11%
  • Academic services spend – 6%
  • Facilities spend – 6%

How important are the university rankings?

When you compare the league tables, you’ll see that the University of Oxford is number one across three leagues and second in the QS Top University league, making it the best ranked university in the UK in 2021.

But there are other important things that the university rankings system cannot factor in:

  • Do you want to move to Oxford, or would you rather live in a different part of the UK?
  • Do you need to stay at home with family?
  • Is the course that you’re interested in more practical elsewhere?
  • Do other universities have better industry links?
  • Are you interested in a lecturer or industry expert from another uni?
  • Have you visited a university and felt completely at home with either the people or the student accommodation?

Whilst the rankings are a useful and insightful tool to understand what a university can offer and how they all compare, they’re not the determiner for your wellbeing or overall university experience.

Finding the right university for you will be a combination of the facts and the stats, but also your feelings – it all depends on what is most important to you.

Three students are walking along the street together, chatting and laughing.

Do employers look at university rankings?

Outside of looking at the stats to determine what uni is right for you, it’s worth considering whether employers look at university rankings.

Whilst some might be impressed by a ‘top ten’ university student, there will many other factors at play when job-hunting. 

Employers in specific or niche areas of study will more likely look at course ranking over university ranking. Generally speaking, internships, industry experience, final grade, portfolios and confidence all play a larger part in securing a job after university.

So, do university rankings really matter?

The university rankings are a good starting point when looking at where you might want to study, but it is not the most important or only factor when finding the right university for you.

Use the university and course rankings for research, but try and see as many universities and student accommodation sites as possible. This will help you to get a feel for what it will really be like to live and study at the universities you apply for.

Everyone’s priorities will be different, so there’s not one right answer – all you can do is look at the stats, go with your gut and put as much into your uni experience as you want to get out of it.

For more information about preparing for student life, take a look at our reading room.



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