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No league table is perfect: Why you shouldn’t worry about university rankings

As the Times Higher Education releases its 2014 Reputation Rankings, Ben Jackson advises prospective students to take league tables with a pinch of salt
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When the Times Higher Education supplement first published its World Reputation Rankings in 2011, I was exploring my university options. I attended open days and ordered more than thirty prospectuses. But my main concern at the time was the reputation of the universities I was looking at. I wanted to study at a prestigious university, whatever that’s supposed to mean. So league tables like the World Reputation Rankings were right up my street.

But are reputation rankings, and league tables more generally, worth our time? As a finalist at King’s College London, widely considered a prestigious university (King’s comes 43 in the 2014 reputation rankings), I’m no longer convinced. The things that have done me the most good at King’s – the student newspaper, particular lecturers and the campus’s location – aren’t generally reflected in rankings.

Dan Seamarks, a prospective journalism student, thinks league tables are an outdated form. “I was constantly told that I must look at league tables and use them when making my final decisions,” he said. “However, all of my universities’ strengths lay in different places.”

League tables offer different ideas of what makes a good institution. World rankings have been known to place a university far lower (or higher) than in national ones. How can the London School of Economics be placed 68th in the QS World University Rankings while sitting third in the Guardian’s domestic table? It’s enough to puzzle any prospective student.

You have to do your research to find out what qualities various tables take into account. QS goes so far as to weigh universities based on the proportion of international students and staff. However, I doubt sixth form students have the time or will to investigate the differing criteria used to produce tables while they’re coping with the demands of A-levels.

Another problem is that one league table on its own can only tell you the prevailing mood that year. A university can fluctuate massively from year to year. If you chose Sussex purely for its position of 11th in the Guardian’s 2012 table, you’d be disappointed when two years into your course it dropped a staggering 39 places.

Dr Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group, a collection of top universities (so in a way its own league table), warned last week: “Ranking universities is a process fraught with difficulties so students should not use league tables alone when picking a degree course.”

I’m inclined to agree. By all means, look at all the league tables you can get your hands on. But remember, they won’t take your personality into account. As a King’s student, I can tell you there’s no point going to UCL if you like making friends. More objectively, you shouldn’t go to sports-mad Loughborough if you hate competitive sports. I chose my university because when I visited, I just felt at home. No league table can tell you that sort of thing.