Analytic Quality Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-22, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 20 January, 2022 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2022.


Novel Recipes



League table

core definition

League table is a term used to refer to ranking of higher education institutions or programmes of study.

explanatory context

League table is a term mostly used in the UK. Many other countries refer to rankings or ranking lists.


Altbach (2002) reminds us that ‘Classification is not the same thing as ranking’

analytical review (2012) defines league tables as:

a set of statistics used to compare the performance of a number of individuals, groups, or institutions.


The University of Manchester (2004) states:

With 325 higher education institutions offering thousands of courses the choice of what to study and where is not an easy one! University league tables, although they do need to be treated with some caution, do offer some very useful information to help you to make an informed choice. In addition to ranking universities and courses many of them also offer useful profiles of individual institution…

The main indicators taken into account are listed below:

·      Entry Standards/Qualifications - The average number of UCAS points held by first-year students

·      Teaching Quality Assessment - The marks received in teaching assessments by individual departments

·      Research Assessment - The research rating received by each department (more relevant to postgraduate study)

·      Teaching - The marks received in teaching assessments by individual departments

·      Research -The research rating received by each department

·      Student/Staff Ratio - On average the number of staff in relation to the number of students

·      Degree Classifications - 1sts & 2nds as a percentage of classified degrees

·      Graduate destinations - The percentage of graduates entering full-time employment (may also include universities targeted by graduate recruiters)

·      Drop Out Rate: The percentage of students failing to complete courses

·      Spend Per Student - Library and computer spending, facilities spending

·      Value Added Score - Whether students with lower grades on entry to university go on to get good degrees.

·      Inclusiveness - How well an institution, at subject level, attracts students from under-represented group

Your students therefore need to ensure that the league tables they use are based on the criteria that are most important to them in their choice of institution. (2010) states on a webpage entitled, ‘Definition of League Tables of British Universities’: 

Starting in the early 1990s, The Times newspaper started publishing league tables ranking British universities based on a number of criteria, such as the quality of their teaching and research (which were assessed by external inspectors), entry standards and dropout rates. These league tables have become increasingly popular over the last few years, and several other papers, such as The Guardian, now publish their own tables.

The league tables are often used by students when deciding which universities to apply to. Some tables are more specific, ranking universities on their strength in individual subjects, and not just overall teaching and research across a range of subjects.

Although the various tables differ slightly in how they assess universities, the same names tend to dominate the top positions. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have typically headed the list, based on their superior funding and prestige (stemming from the fact that they have significantly longer histories than other English universities). This allows them to attract some of England's best students, lecturers and researchers. Cambridge has fared better, as it has claimed first place most years, beating Oxford into second position. Oxford has recently been top of some lists though, based on its greater spending on facilities, but it still lags behind Cambridge in its teaching and research assessments....

Universities that appear high in league tables often attract the best students, and maintain their high entry standards and low dropout rates. Thus, they maintain their high positions, while the universities lower down the table retain their low ones: a self-fulfilling prophecy.

associated issues

Examples of league tables

University of Manchester (2004) suggests:

The Guardian 2004 University League Table

Table of top-ranking institutions. Subject-by-subject rating. Tables are for undergraduates doing full-time degrees at universities and HE colleges. The following data is used: Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA), entry qualification, spend per student, student:staff ratio (ssr), value-added score, student destinations (employment scores), inclusiveness. This data is then weighted to build up a final score to show how the Guardian ranks the student experience for each university. Note that research funding is not included as the ranking is aimed at undergraduates. The online version of the Guardian tables give you the chance to pick the indicators that mean the most to you and alter the tables accordingly.


The Times Good University Guide

The Times league table uses the following data:

Entry standards, student:staff ratio, teaching assessment, research assessment, library and computer spending, facilities spending, firsts and  upper seconds, completion, graduate destinations


There are now (2012) a very large number of league tables or ranking lists around the world produced by newspapers, indepndent agencies, university research departments or government departments. These include the following (all the sites with links below were accessed 3 January 2017):

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings and various sub-lists including the top British Universities, Top 50 Clinical, Pre-Clinical and Health Universities and so on.

Academic Ranking of World Universities known as the Shangai Ranking

QS World University Rankings

US News Ranking of American universities and colleges

Australian Education Network Rankings of Australian Universities, which is a re-presentation of various rankings abstracting out Australian institutions

Higher Education Commission of Pakistan Ranking of Universities

CHE University Ranking

Leiden Ranking

The Guardian University Guide

Concerns about league tables

A report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (2008) states:

Institutions are strongly influenced by league tables. League tables and the individual indicators used to compile them appear to be having a significant influence on institutions’ actions and decision-making, although HEIs themselves are reluctant to acknowledge this. League tables are being used by many institutions as key performance indicators and, in some cases, strategic targets. They are being used by some senior management teams and governing bodies as one of several drivers for internal change. While it is understandable that an institution values its public image as represented in league tables, each needs to manage the tensions between league table performance and institutional and governmental policies and priorities. Some institutions expressed the belief that league tables will become more influential as higher education becomes more competitive.  

As far back as the turn of the century Bowden (2000) remarked on the burgeoning of university league tables in the UK, which are being published by an ever-increasing number of newspapers. She examined national and international university rankings and raised methodological issues. She concluded that, for the majority of potential students, rankings do not provide them with the critical information needed to make an informed choice of where to study. Some of the likely future developments of these league tables were also discussed.


In the Editorial to Quality in Higher Education 14(3), Harvey (2008) provides a critical review of league tables/rankings, inter alia critiquing their construction and validity.

related areas

See also




Bowden, R., 2000, ‘Fantasy higher education: university and college league tables’, Quality in Higher Education, 6(1), pp. 41–60., 2003–12, 'league table', available at, accessed 20 January 2012, still available 3 January 2017, not available 26 June 2019.

Harvey, 2008, 'Editorial, Rankings of higher education institutions: a critical review', Quality in Higher Education 14(3), pp. 187–208, pre-corrected proof available as a pdf.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), 2008, Counting what is measured or measuring what counts? League tables and their impact on higher education institutions in England, Report to HEFCE by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI), Open University, and Hobsons Research, April, paper 2008/14, available at, accessed 3 September 2012, still available 3 January 2017, not available 26 June 2019.

University of Manchester, 2004,,  League tables/reputations,, material not available at this address 20 January 2012., 2010, Definition of League Tables of British Universities, available at, accessed 20 January 2012, page not available 3 January 2017.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2022

A NOVEL Who bombed a Birmingham mosque?


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home