Research reveals influence of university league tables

Matriculationby Charlotte Bransgrove

Economists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have recently published a report which suggests departmental performance in league tables is highly likely to impact applications to university.

The findings reveal certain departments have seen applications increase by almost 5% following a rise in their position on subject-level league tables.

University league tables, as run by newspapers such as The Guardian and The Times, and the independent publication, The Complete University Guide, provide information for students looking into higher education. Rankings can be viewed for specific departments as well as universities’ overall performance.

The researchers used the Guardian’s annual University guide as the basis of the study, determining it to offer the most freely accessibly data to prospective students. Based on eight years of data, the report found an increase in one standard deviation in the Guardian score for the university resulted in a 4.8% increase in applications.

The report also noted that the importance of league table positions has increased following the recent hike in tuition fees, which perhaps suggests students are taking more care in choosing where they study.

Durham University, which is renowned for being highly competitive and received 6.8 applicants for every available place in 2011, features as fourth in the Sunday Times University Guide and fifth on the Complete University Guide online alongside other high calibre universities.

However, individual department performance can vary in comparison to overall performance. Durham for example, features as second for History but only ninth for Politics in the Complete University Guide online.

The report suggests that universities and departments should focus on improving and promoting their league table performance in order to attract applicants. The Durham University website seems to understand the importance of these findings, listing a ‘Top 4 UK University’ first in a number of reasons to choose Durham for undergraduate study.

Recent Durham applicant Lottie agrees with the results of the report, commenting, “Personally the league tables were the first point of call for me when choosing my universities. You want to try to attend the best university you can with the best reputation for your course.”

Other students however point to other factors influencing applicants, such as course content and location. Rosie, a second year Theology student at the University, argues, “There’s more to a university than just its rankings. I think people do look at what a university can offer uniquely, particularly with places like Durham.”

Photograph: Durham University

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  1. J Williams
    Apr 15, 2013 - 02:31 PM

    The Comnplete University Guide puts Durham 15th for Business Studies, 14th for Computer Science and Accounting and Finance, 47th for Electrical and Electronic Engineering, 26th for Civil Engineering, 3rd for History (not 2nd as you state). 9th for Politics looks OK. Not quite up to the University target of top 10% in the UK (which would be about 7th), but closer than some.

    Rankings vary quite substantially from league table to league table depending on the methodology and weigting given to specific factors – hence the University preferring to play-down the Guardian league table typcially, as this doesn’t include any measure for research strengths, where Durham usually does quite well. On that measure History drops to 5th, Politics rises to 7th. Economics goes up from 7th in GUG to 3rd on the Guardian and Engineering rises to 15th. There is also often a lot of bunching – small variations in overall scores covering several departments at different institutions.

    League tables are an important game for Universities to play and the statistics reveal some useful general trends. Strength across a number of league tables is probably telling you something useful, but it’s never a substitute for proper study of a department’s specific teaching and research interests – no point going to a History department with massive strength in medieval and early-modern history if you’re really interested in modern history – and a visit and discussions to get a feel for the place and how it approaches teaching.

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