Do University Rankings Matter?

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The short answer is a little bit, but not enough to lose sleep over. There is no right way to list universities in order of worth. Each ranking will use variables that are not relevant to an individual’s experience on a particular course, and the margins of error can make the difference between universities meaningless.

While there is probably a difference between a university ranked 10th and one in 60th place, the difference between 10th and 20th is most likely negligible.

Deciding where you study is a personal choice, and for most, the course content and learning outcomes are more important than the university’s ranking. Having said this, it can still be helpful to understand what is being measured, the difference between rankings and who pays attention to them.

Who Cares About University Rankings?

Understandably, university management and prospective students are the two main groups invested in university rankings.

Universities use rankings to promote on their websites and brochures as an easy-to-present number, and prospective students use rankings to narrow down their application list and group similar universities. Nobody has the time to do in-depth research on all UK universities to understand the higher education landscape and their options.


Rankings Benefits

  • Help universities promote their strengths
  • Saves prospective students time
  • A simple way to make complex comparisons


For some of the most competitive careers in banking, finance and law, graduating from a top-10 university can increase your chances of getting an interview and placements in the big city firms. However, this is more related to the university’s overall reputation than if it’s ranked 5th or 8th in that year’s rankings.

How Are Universities Ranked?

There are two main types of rankings: the university as a whole or for specific subject areas.

Overall University Ranking

The overall ranking looks at a wide range of areas covering all university activities. They aim to give a comprehensive score encompassing all aspects of the university, from research output to student-to-staff ratios and graduate outcomes.

Subject Area Ranking

These rankings focus on the performance of universities in a particular academic discipline or field of study. Subject area rankings often differ significantly from overall rankings. It is common for top-10 universities to score poorly in some subjects, while lower-ranked universities can top the rankings in an individual subject.

What Is Being Ranked?

Universities are complex organisations, and each is unique, making comparing hundreds of institutions an art more than a science. The biggest challenges for the ranking bodies are getting consistent data and enough of it. Most rankings are based on all or a combination of the following.

  • Entry standards
  • Student-staff ratios
  • Spending on academic services
  • Facilities spending
  • Graduate prospects- employment and earnings
  • Continuation to further study
  • International student enrolments
  • Research Output/ Quality
  • Student Satisfaction Surveys


International or global rankings have even more of a challenge as they need to standardise individual country data to make valid comparisons and give each university a quantitative score.

Which is More Important- Subject Area Rankings vs. Overall University Rankings?

This can be a common dilemma: a highly-ranked subject area at an average university or an averagely-ranked course at a prestigious university.

If you are taking the course to gain employment or progress your career in the subject directly, then the subject area ranking might offer more opportunities. Outside of directly related career goals, the university’s prestige may matter more.

If this sounds like very loose advice, that’s because it is. There is no correct answer to this question, and at the end of the day, the university’s rank and reputation only matter as much as the person judging you places on it.

Main University Rankings

Each of the leading university rankings uses a different methodology and combination of data points to produce their scores.

  • The Times– 13 different indicators
  • The Guardian– 9 performance indicators
  • QS – QS ranks universities based on six leading indicators
  • ARWU– Six objective indicators


The Aggregate Ranking of Top Universities (ARTU) is different; it aggregates the three scores of the main global university rankings.

  • ARTU- calculated by their aggregate rank in The Times, ARW & QS

Discrepancies in University Rankings

If you look at and compare rankings, you will notice differences between them. For example, some highly ranked UK universities like the London School of Economics (LSE) or St Andrews perform poorly in global rankings, whereas some UK universities that are lower than LSE and St Andrews in UK rankings (The Guardian and The Times) are placed higher in the international lists produced by QS and ARWU.

In general, universities do fall into similar bands across different rankings. Top-ranked universities will tend to be in the leading places across all rankings, but there are differences, like the example above. This is expected as each ranking system has a different methodology and may use different data points.

Delving into the different methodologies used by each ranking and their biases is beyond the scope of this post. If you are interested in this area, University Rankings: A Review of Methodological Flaws is a good starting place.

Why Are Some Universities Missing from the Rankings?

Some universities are not shown in rankings at all, even though they are highly regarded and produce excellent research and graduate outcomes. Being omitted from the rankings can happen for several reasons.

The Rankings bodies do not have enough data to make a fair comparison.

  • The university does not share information with the ranking body.
  • The university is a research-only or a teaching-only university.
  • The university is a specialist institution, making it difficult to compare with traditional universities.


Birkbeck University released a detailed article on why they were leaving the UK university rankings as they did not provide a fair representation of the unique ethos of the institution.

If you have found a course you are interested in that meets your goals, but the university is not in the main commercial ranking, it is not necessarily a bad sign, as there are other ways to assess a university.

Other Higher Education Rankings to Consider

University rankings are useful, but other information from independent government bodies can be helpful when comparing universities.

The initiatives below are conducted and maintained by independent bodies funded by the UK government. They are designed to help foster excellence and transparency in UK Higher education providers. They;

  • provide information that supports universities to improve the student experience.
  • support public accountability.
  • encourage transparency.


Just like university rankings, the information they provide may not be directly relevant to the individual course you are interested in, but they do offer an independent view of the institution.

Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

The TEF is run by the Office for Students (OfS) and is designed to promote excellence in university teaching and learning. TEF monitors the student experience and outcomes for undergraduates only, and the university is given one of four ratings, Bronze Silver, Gold or Required Improvement.

GoldThe student experience and outcomes are typically outstanding.
SilverThe student experience and outcomes are typically very high quality, and there may be some outstanding features.
BronzeThe student experience and outcomes are typically high quality, and there are some very high-quality features.

Where there is an absence of excellence, a TEF rating will not be awarded. The published outcome will signal that the provider ‘Requires improvement’ to be awarded a TEF rating.

Requires ImprovementThe provider was assessed in TEF, and no rating was awarded. Improvement is required for a TEF rating.

Research Excellence Framework (REF)

The REF is an assessment and evaluation exercise conducted by the UK government to monitor the quality of research conducted by universities and other higher education institutions. The REF is used to allocate research funding and to provide accountability for public investment in research. The REF does not focus on student experience or teaching, but It can be helpful to understand the academic research conducted by the university.

Quality LevelDescription
Four-starQuality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
Three-starQuality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
Two-starQuality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
One-starQuality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
UnclassifiedQuality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

The National Student Survey (NSS)

The NSS is a UK-wide official survey of all university undergraduates. The results are publicly accessible and can be used by prospective students to make more informed choices about where they study.

In 2022, they ran a pilot for taught postgraduate students with the plan of rolling this out nationwide. For online students, it is good to understand that the survey results primarily reflect the university’s on-campus students simply because they make up the majority of higher education students.

What Is Important to You?

There are no right or wrong amounts of importance to put on the ranking of a university. If there are any general rules to follow, we advise you to pick the courses you find the most interesting and will enjoy the most and will help you achieve your goals.

Once you have a shortlist, you could aim for the most prestigious or decide that the ranking is not the most important factor to you and your professional and personal goals.

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