Three national rankings of universities in the United Kingdom are published annually - by The Complete University Guide, The Guardian and jointly by The Times and The Sunday Times. Rankings have also been produced in the past by The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times.
The primary aim of the rankings is to inform potential undergraduate applicants about UK universities based on a range of criteria, including entry standards, student satisfaction, staff/student ratio, academic services and facilities expenditure per student, research quality, proportion of Firsts and 2:1s, completion rates and student destinations. All of the league tables also rank universities on their strength in individual subjects.
Each year since 2008, Times Higher Education has compiled a "Table of Tables" to combine the results of the 3 mainstream league tables. In the 2021 table, the top 5 universities were the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford (joint first), the University of St Andrews, the London School of Economics and Durham University.
The following rankings of British universities are produced annually:
The Complete University Guide is compiled by Mayfield University Consultants and was published for the first time in 2007.
The ranking uses ten criteria, with a statistical technique called the Z-score applied to the results of each. The ten Z-scores are then weighted (as given below) and summed to give a total score for each university. These total scores are then transformed to a scale where the top score is set at 1,000, with the remainder being a proportion of the top score. The ten criteria are:
The most recent league table (2021) ranked the top 50 (out of 130) British universities as follows:
|Rank (1-10)||University||Rank (11-20)||University||Rank (21-30)||University||Rank (31-40)||University||Rank (41-50)||University|
|1||University of Cambridge||11||University of Warwick||20=||University of Nottingham||31||University of Dundee||41=||University of Essex|
|2||University of Oxford||12||University of Exeter||22||University of York||32||Swansea University||41=||Harper Adams University|
|3||University of St Andrews||13||University of Birmingham||23||Newcastle University||33||University of Liverpool||43||Aston University|
|4||London School of Economics||14||University of Bristol||24||Royal Holloway, University of London||34||University of Surrey||44||University for the Creative Arts|
|5||Imperial College London||15||University of Edinburgh||25||University of East Anglia||35=||Queen Mary, University of London||45||University of Stirling|
|6||Loughborough University||16||University of Leeds||26||University of Aberdeen||35=||University of Strathclyde||46||Nottingham Trent University|
|7||Durham University||17=||University of Manchester||27||Queen's University Belfast||37||SOAS, University of London||47||University of Kent|
|8||Lancaster University||17=||University of Southampton||28||University of Sheffield||38||University of Leicester||48=||Arts University Bournemouth|
|9||University of Bath||19||University of Glasgow||29||Heriot-Watt University||39||University of Reading||48=||Oxford Brookes University|
|10||University College London||20=||King's College London||30||Cardiff University||40||University of Sussex||50||University of Lincoln|
On an annual basis, The Complete University Guide also produces an individual ranking for British universities across 70 subjects. The Guide includes a summary table ranking universities according to how frequently they appear in the top ten of each subject ranking.
The most recent league table (2020) ranked the top 10 (out of 61) British universities as follows:
in Top Ten
|1||University of Cambridge||41||27||41||100.0|
|2||University of Oxford||37||9||37||100.0|
|3||Imperial College London||14||0||13||92.9|
|5||University of St Andrews||24||4||21||87.5|
|6||London School of Economics||12||1||10||83.3|
|7||University of Exeter||37||0||26||70.3|
|8||University of Bath||26||2||18||69.2|
|9||University College London||37||0||25||67.6|
|10||Royal Veterinary College||3||0||2||66.7|
The Guardian ranking uses nine different criteria, each weighted between 5 and 15 per cent. Unlike other annual rankings of British universities, the criteria do not include a measure of research output. A "value-added" factor is included which compares students' degree results with their entry qualifications, described by the newspaper as being "[b]ased upon a sophisticated indexing methodology that tracks students from enrolment to graduation, qualifications upon entry are compared with the award that a student receives at the end of their studies". Tables are drawn up for subjects, with the overall ranking being based on an average across the subjects rather than on institutional level statistics. The nine criteria are:
The most recent league table (2021) ranked the top 50 (out of 121) British universities as follows:
|Rank (1-10)||University||Rank (11-20)||University||Rank (21-30)||University||Rank (31-40)||University||Rank (41-50)||University|
|1||University of Oxford||11||University of Bristol||=21||University of the West of England, Bristol||31||University of Sheffield||41||Nottingham Trent University|
|2||University of St Andrews||12||University of Glasgow||=21||University of Birmingham||32||Royal Holloway, University of London||42||King's College London|
|3||University of Cambridge||13||University of Edinburgh||23||University of Southampton||33||University for the Creative Arts||=43||Robert Gordon University|
|4||Durham University||14||University College London||24||Swansea University||34||University of West London||=43||Oxford Brookes University|
|5||London School of Economics||15||Strathclyde University||25||University of Manchester||=35||Heriot-Watt University||45||University of the Arts London|
|6||University of Bath||=16||University of York||26||Coventry University||=35||University of Keele||45||Queen's University Belfast|
|7||Loughborough University||=16||University of Exeter||27||Northumbria University||37||Cardiff University||47||Sheffield Hallam University|
|8||University of Warwick||18||University of Leeds||28||University of Stirling||=38||University of Nottingham||48||University of Abertay Dundee|
|9||Imperial College London||19||University of Dundee||29||University of Chichester||=38||University of East Anglia||49||University of Aberystwyth|
|10||Lancaster University||20||University of Aberdeen||30||Aston University||40||Kingston University||50||Bolton University|
The Times/The Sunday Times university league table, known as the Good University Guide, is published in both electronic and print format and ranks institutions using the following eight criteria:
Other criteria considered are:
The following universities rank in the top 10 in at least one of the most recent national rankings (the three discussed above: the Complete, Guardian and Times/Sunday Times). The table is ordered according to the Times Higher Education Table of Tables (2020), based on average rank in the tables for that year. The last column gives the number of league tables (not including the Table of Tables) which include that university in their top ten.
|University||THE Table of Tables (2021)||Complete (2021)||Guardian (2021)||Times||#a|
|University of Cambridge||1=||1||3||Y|
|University of Oxford||1=||2||1||Y|
|University of St Andrews||3||3||2||Y|
|London School of Economics||4||4||5||Y|
|Imperial College London||6||5||9||Y|
|University of Bath||8||9||6||Y|
|University of Warwick||10||11||8||Y|
|University College London||11||10||14||Y|
a Number of times the university is ranked within the top 10 of one of the three national rankings.
b The university is ranked within the top 3 of all three national rankings.
c The university is ranked within the top 5 of all three national rankings.
It has been commented by The Sunday Times that a number of universities which regularly feature in the top ten of British university league tables, such as St Andrews, Durham and LSE (in the case of LSE 3rd to 13th nationally whilst only 327th in the US News & World Report Rankings / 35th in the QS Rankings / 23rd in the THE Rankings), "inhabit surprisingly low ranks in the worldwide tables", whilst other universities such as Manchester, Edinburgh and KCL "that failed to do well in the domestic rankings have shone much brighter on the international stage". The considerable disparity in rankings has been attributed to the different methodology and purpose of global university rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities, QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education World University Rankings. International university rankings primarily use criteria such as academic and employer surveys, the number of citations per faculty, the proportion of international staff and students and faculty and alumni prize winners. When size is taken into account, LSE ranks second in the world out of all small to medium-sized specialist institutions (after ENS Paris) and St Andrews ranks second in the world out of all small to medium-sized fully comprehensive universities (after Brown University) using metrics from the QS Intelligence Unit in 2015. The national rankings, on the other hand, give most weighting to the undergraduate student experience, taking account of teaching quality and learning resources, together with the quality of a university's intake, employment prospects, research quality and drop-out rates.
The disparity between national and international league tables has caused some institutions to offer public explanations for the difference. LSE for example states on its website that 'we remain concerned that all of the global rankings - by some way the most important for us, given our highly international orientation - suffer from inbuilt biases in favour of large multi-faculty universities with full STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) offerings, and against small, specialist, mainly non-STEM universities such as LSE.'
Research by the UK's Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in 2016 found that global rankings fundamentally measure research performance, with research-related measures accounting for over 85 percent of the weighting for both the Times Higher Education and QS rankings and 100 percent of the weighting for the ARWU ranking. HEPI also found that ARWU made no correction for the size of an institution. There were also concerns about the data quality and the reliability of reputation surveys. National rankings, while said to be "of varying validity", have more robust data and are "more highly regarded than international rankings".
The following universities rank in the top 100 of at least two global rankings:
|University||QS World (2020)||THE World (2020)||ARWU World (2019)||CWTS Leiden (2019)||#a|
|University of Oxford||4||1||7||11|
|University of Cambridge||7||3||3||17|
|Imperial College London||9||10||23||21|
|University College London||8||15||15||18|
|University of Edinburgh||20||30||31||52|
|University of Manchester||27||55=||33||55|
|King's College London||33||36=||51||35|
|London School of Economics||44||27=||151-200||43|
|University of Bristol||49||87||74||37|
|University of Warwick||62||77||101-150||64|
|University of Glasgow||67||99=||151-200||56|
|University of Birmingham||81||112||101-150||93|
|University of Leeds||93||155=||101-150||83|
|University of Sheffield||78||117=||101-150||88|
a Number of times the university is ranked within the top 100 of one of the four global rankings.
b The university is ranked within the top 25 of all four global rankings.
UK university rankings have been subjected to criticism.
There has been criticism of attempts to combine different rankings on for example research quality, quality of teaching, drop out rates and student satisfaction. Sir Alan Wilson, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds argues that the final average has little significance and is like trying to "combine apples and oranges". He also criticised the varying weights given to different factors, the need for universities to "chase" the rankings, the often fluctuating nature of a university's ranking, and the catch-22 that the government's desire to increase access can have negative effects on league table rankings. Further worries have been expressed regarding marketing strategies and propaganda used to chase tables undermining Universities values.
The rankings are also criticised for not giving a full picture of higher education in the United Kingdom. There are institutions which focus on research and enjoy a prestigious reputation but are not shown in the table for various reasons. For example, the Institute of Education, University of London (now part of UCL), was not usually listed in the undergraduate rankings despite the fact that it offered an undergraduate BEd and was generally recognised as one of the best institutions offering teacher training and Education studies (for example, being given joint first place, alongside Oxford University, in the 2008 Research Assessment 'Education' subject rankings, according to both Times Higher Education and The Guardian).
League tables, which usually focus on the full-time undergraduate student experience, commonly omit reference to Birkbeck, University of London, and the Open University, both of which specialise in teaching part-time students. These universities, however, often make a strong showing in specialist league tables looking at research, teaching quality, and student satisfaction. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, according to the Times Higher Education, Birkbeck was placed equal 33rd, and the Open University 43rd, out of 132 institutions. The 2009 student satisfaction survey placed the Open University 3rd and Birkbeck 13th out of 153 universities and higher education institutions (1st and 6th, respectively, among multi-faculty universities). In 2018, Birkbeck announced that it will withdraw from UK university rankings because their methodologies unfairly penalise it, since "despite having highly-rated teaching and research, other factors caused by its unique teaching model and unrelated to its performance push it significantly down the ratings".