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How to Choose a UK University – Understanding League Tables

The most important thing to remember when choosing a university in the UK is that “league tables” such as the Guardian University Guide or The Times Online University Guide are just that – a guide only. There are no official government lists of universities in terms of quality in the UK. Why? Well, mainly because different universities specialise in different subjects. So, if you look at the league tables for different subjects you will find the list of universities in a different order. For example;

Business and management studies
4.St Andrews
Notice here that Cambridge, one of the UK’s top universities, is not in the top 5 for business.

Sports Science

Source: The above information was taken from The Guardian University Guide 2010.

So in general, in the UK, students look for universities which are good at the subject they want to study rather than the overall league table position. However, there are lots of other aspects of choosing a university that may be important to you and these fall into 2 main categories: factors related to the university and factors which are your personal preferences. The first category includes areas such as career prospects, how many staff per student, IT and/ or sports facilities, number of students, percentage of non UK students, cost of the course and accommodation. The second includes things like location, climate, cost of living, ethnicity of the town or city, entertainment and facilities. It is therefore important that you try to find out as much information as possible about each university that you are interested in.

League tables can be a good source of information for this at first as can university websites and books such as The Guardian University Guide which is published and updated every year. There are other sources of information too.

Open days

If you have met a university representative overseas who has tried to “sell” you their university, remember to think critically about the information they have given you. It is their job to market their university and you should try to find out more.

If you are in the UK you can visit universities on “open days” to find out more. Usually you will be able to meet some of the academic staff in the department where you are thinking of studying and hopefully some current students. Talking to students is a good way to find out if you would be happy studying there. You will also go on a tour of the university including accommodation and facilities which will help you imagine what it would be like to live there.

If you cannot go to an open day, there are other good sources of information.

The National Student Satisfaction Survey

This is a survey which all final year undergraduate students can complete and gives students an opportunity to say what they liked about their university and what they think could or should be improved. The results are published on Unistats and you can search this website by subject and university to compare what students think about their courses.

The Students’ Union

The Students’ Union is an organisation which helps to improve students’ lives and defend their rights. There is a national organisation in the UK, NUS and each university has its own students’ union. All the people who work in The Students’ Union are students and they are not part of the university management. They often campaign for improvements for students and looking at the SU website for a university can give you a better understanding of the good and bad aspects of studying there.

The National Union of Students:

Other information sources DirectGov is a government website about all aspects of the UK and this section has lots of good information about universities and links to other sites.