'Table of tables' offers sector clearer picture

Combined ranking provides more comprehensive view of institutions' progress. Hannah Fearn reports

September 24, 2009

With so many national newspaper league tables, it can be difficult to keep track of the results.

But a source has amalgamated the available data for Times Higher Education to produce the definitive table of tables. It combines rankings produced by The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times.

By assigning points to each institution in the top 40 of each table, an overall ranking for the universities scored highly by the four newspapers has been collated - although Times Higher Education acknowledges the methodological limitations.

Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, and chair of the 1994 Group, said the table was useful to the sector.

"All the tables are flawed, but if you look at them in general, you can start to see some particularly clear patterns," he said.

Bringing the results together helps to limit fluctuations caused by the introduction or variable weighting of different measurements, including the National Student Survey (NSS) results, he added.

There are few surprises at the top. As was the case last year, the University of Oxford is in first place, followed by the University of Cambridge. But there are some significant changes further down.

The London School of Economics has fallen from third to seventh place, while the University of Edinburgh has risen from 15th to 11th. Many of the major civic universities, including Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, fall outside the top 20.

Professor Wellings said that this was because student-satisfaction ratings tended to be higher at campus-based institutions.

"I suspect that is to do with the way that the NSS now drives so much perception," he added.

Heriot-Watt University has entered the top 40 at number 36.

"We believe this reflects our successes in the RAE 2008, the quality and employability of our graduates, whose courses include practical training and entrepreneurialism throughout, and our international profile," a spokeswoman for the institution said.

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said she was "delighted" to see its members continue to excel.

"It is because Russell Group graduates are entrepreneurial, good at problem-solving and able to work both independently and within a team that they continue to be held in high esteem," she said.

But she has reservations about any league table's methodology.

"Categorising universities on a few subjective criteria can be misleading," she said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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