University league tables: What can they tell me? (Updated for 2020)

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A student weighing up different universities

If you’re thinking about going to uni, the chances are you’ll want to find out about the best universities in the UK.

That’s where the university league tables come in. But while there’s much they can teach you, there are lots of other things to consider as well. In this article, we take a look at the three main university rankings to help you use them when choosing which unis to apply to.

'University rankings can teach you a lot – but they can't tell you everything'

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There are three university league tables in the UK

University rankings are published ever year in three league tables:

  • Student satisfaction is just one of the many criteria used in

    drawing up the league tables

    The Complete University Guide
  • The Guardian
  • The Times / The Sunday Times

Each league table looks at a range of factors to work out which were the UK’s top universities in the previous academic year, including:

  • Quality of teaching
  • Student satisfaction
  • Standard of research
  • Student performance
  • Entry requirements
  • Job prospects for graduates

Each table gives slightly different weighting to different factors. The Guardian places the emphasis on the quality of the education, based on things like teaching and job prospects, and doesn’t consider research at all.

Times Higher Education (THE) publishes a combination of these league tables, which they call the “Table of Tables”. They do this by awarding points to the 30 top universities in the three league tables based on their position (30 points for first position, 29 points for second position and so on).

So what are the UK’s top universities?

According to the 2020 THE Table of Tables, the best universities in the UK are:

  1. University of Oxford
  2. University of St Andrews
  3. Imperial College London
  4. Loughborough University
  5. Durham University
  6. Lancaster University
  7. University of Bath
  8. London School of Economics and Political Science
  9. University of Warwick
  10. University of Exeter

And here are the three 2020 university league tables individually:


  The Complete University Guide The Guardian The Times / The Sunday Times
1 University of Cambridge University of Cambridge University of Cambridge
2 University of Oxford University of St Andrews University of Oxford
3 University of St Andrews University of Oxford University of St Andrews
4 London School of Economics Loughborough University Imperial College London
5 Imperial College London Durham University Loughborough University
6 Durham University University of Bath London School of Economics
7 University of Lancaster Imperial College London Durham University
8 Loughborough University Lancaster University Lancaster University
9 University of Bath University of Warwick University College London
10 University College London University of Exeter University of Warwick

Can I trust the university rankings?

The three university league tables are carried out by reputable market research companies and each uses a rigorous methodology. That means you can trust that they accurately rank universities against the criteria they use.

The Table of Tables uses a basic methodology and the THE tells users to treat it as a guideline.

What do the university league tables tell me?

The university rankings tell you which are the best universities in the UK based on all the criteria they consider.

What they don’t tell you is which are the best universities in the UK for you. They don’t take account of:

  • Your personal circumstances.
  • What you want to get out of university.
  • Your academic attainment.
  • How hard you want to study.
  • How much help you need.
  • What else should I consider?

To help you narrow down your choices to the top universities for you, you need to consider a host of factors beyond the raw data of the university league tables.

Get the students’ perspective

The National Student Survey asks students how they feel about

their university learning experience

Every year, a body called the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) carries out something called the National Student Survey. This asks students at all universities questions about the overall quality of their university learning experience:

  • Teaching
  • Assessment and feedback
  • Academic support
  • Organisation and management
  • Learning resources
  • Personal development
  • Overall satisfaction

The results of this year's survey are used on the Discover Uni website. Results don’t come in the form of a ranking. Instead, each university and course is given a score out of 100% for each area included on the survey (e.g. student satisfaction) and this is displayed on the course pages on the Discover Uni site. For example, here is the Physics BSc course page for Aberystwyth University.

Even so, it’s worth bearing in mind that the respondents chose the university and course that they’re answering questions about. They had the grades to get in and probably felt some affinity with the place when they applied. That means they’re not answering with complete neutrality.

What are your priorities?

As well as looking at university league tables and survey data, you should think about your own priorities. The universities you can apply to may be limited by the course you want to study. There are other questions you should ask yourself as well:

  • What is it you want to get out of university?
  • What kind of study/life balance are you looking for?
  • How close to home do you want to be?

Pay a visit

You should also visit plenty of universities to get a feel for the place. Sure, Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrew’s may be top, but:

  • Do you feel at home there?
  • Is the course right?
  • Will you be comfortable in the accommodation?
  • Are you excited by the prospect of studying there?

You may well find that the best universities in the UK are very different for you than the university rankings suggest. Take a look at our guide to choosing a university to learn more.

Image credits

Lead image by Freepik, science students by Cañada College via Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0, students using laptop by Mattbuck via Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 2.0



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