HE Research Snippet 4 - Are Students Still Using University League Tables? Which Is Most Popular?

Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight

Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight

We work with over 110 UK unis to help them tackle the HE industry's biggest challenges. Check out our HE Snippets below, designed to keep you in the know.

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Love them or hate them, university league tables are central to the decision-making of many university applicants. And with increasing consumerisation in higher education, they, along with other performance-related sources such as the Key Information Sets, are likely to remain central to decision-making processes for prospective students.

Using our Higher Expectations data, we decided to create a league table of league tables to help institutions understand these important information sources.

Figure 1 below shows that The Times Good University Guide traditionally enjoyed the highest usage amongst prospective students. In the last couple of years, however, The Guardian’s University League Table has overtaken it. A probable cause of this is likely to have been the introduction of The Times’ paywall (which was lauched in June 2010, impacting on the 2011/12 and 2012/13 starting cohorts). More recently, the paywall has been removed for their Good University Guide, but it remains to be seen whether The Times will be able to regain their top spot.

Figure 1: League table of league tables

League Table 2012/13
The Guardian University League Table 1st 2nd 2nd
The Times Good University Guide 2nd 1st 1st
The Complete University Guide (formerly in association with The Independent) 3rd 5th N/A
Times Higher Education World University Rankings 4th 4th 4th
Sunday Times University Guide rankings 5th 3rd 3rd
QS World University Rankings 6th 6th N/A
Academic Ranking of World Universities 7th 7th 5th
Figure 1: LEA1. Which of the following league tables, if any, did you look at?
Base: All respondents Higher Expectations; 2012/13 (12,176), 2010/11 (11,971), 2008/09 (11,468)
For the exact usage data percentages, contact us about subscribing to Higher Expectations


1 in 10 students use at least one league table

Our latest data shows that seven in ten students (69%) used at least one league table when deciding on university. However, certain key groups of students use league tables far more. As Figure 2 (below) shows, Law students use league tables the most and Creative Arts & Design students use them the least. Those who go on to study at ‘pre 92’ HEIs use them more than those who end up at ‘post 92’ HEIs. And overseas students are far more likely than home students to consult them.

Figure 2: League tables usage when deciding on university – Law students vs. Creative Arts & Design students; Pre 92 HEI students vs. Post 92 HEI students; Home students vs. Overseas students

  Law students Creative Arts & Design students Pre 92 HEI students Post 92 HEI students Home students Overseas students
  553 1,097 6,627 5,032 11,628 548
Used any league table 79% 48% 81% 54% 68% 79%
Figure 2: LEA1. Which of the following league tables, if any, did you look at?
Base: All respondents answering question - Higher Expectations 2012/13
Statistically significant differences: An orange background indicates that figure is significantly higher



University league tables are clearly a key resource in the university application process, particularly for certain groups of students. Usage has remained relatively stable over time, but it’s clear that since The Times introduced its pay-wall (affecting the last two academic cohorts), The Guardian has, at least for the time being, become the ‘go-to’ table for applicants.

Whether or not The Times will be able to regain ground now it has removed its pay-wall remains to be seen. Through Higher Expectations, we will continue to monitor league table usage every year. Subscribing clients will be able to view results on this and hundreds of other questions, at the level of the individual institution.


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Tags: Higher Education