[This post is an ‘edited for public consumption’ version of an email response to a query from one of my students.]
When you look at university league tables, consider the significance of the data that lies behind them. Let’s take the case of someone considering a Psychology degree and looking at Leeds Trinity as a possible option. Leeds Trinity appears in the Guardian table at 76th place out of 109 for psychology (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2012/may/22/university-guide-psychology), which you might say looks pretty poor. However, on that table you will see that overall student satisfaction is higher at Leeds Trinity than at UCL which is top of the table. But perhaps that is simply because expectations of the kind of students getting into UCL is higher. After all they’ve given UCL a ‘value added’ score (a measure of how well students do on the degree compared with their entry qualifications) of 10/10 whereas Leeds Trinity has a score of only 1/10 which seems awful (it doesn’t make clear how that score is calculated by the way – it may be masking perfectly valid reasons). On the other hand, does ‘value added’ in terms of your degree score matter if studying there helps you to get a job afterwards? Isn’t that a pretty important kind of ‘value’? For Psychology, Leeds Trinity’s ’employability’ rating is 34th in the table which puts it into the top third, above more prestigious universities such as Manchester and Liverpool.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that this seems to be an institution ‘on the up’. I don’t know why the Complete University Guide doesn’t include it in the main table, but it does appear in their subject tables. For Psychology, Leeds Trinity has moved up from 78 to 59 in the table – rather higher than in the Guardian table, which shows that you shouldn’t be reading the tables as some kind of gospel truth. See: http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings?s=Psychology – again, note the high student satisfaction score. Obviously a one year shift does not necessarily indicate a trend, but looking at different tables over time does seem to suggest an institution improving across the board.
Ideally, though, you shouldn’t rely just on published information. For any course, get to one of their open days or visit days, if you can. Information is always available on the university websites, for example at Trinity here: http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/STUDY/UNIVERSITY-OPEN-DAYS/Pages/default.aspx, but also make sure you see other places you might be interested in. I think one of the most important things is to get a feel for the course, the place and its people. Is it something you can see yourself being interested and motivated to put the work in? Can you imagine yourself being there for three years, getting along with the other students and the lecturers you’ll be working with? Many places accommodate weekend visits, too, to avoid missing too much school
If you want to know more about university league tables and how they come up with their rankings, Newcastle University has some interesting background, but funnily enough they don’t mention the Push guide table.