The Which, When and Why of University League Tables

Students’ Use and Perceptions of Institutional vs. Subject Rankings

Email the author: Rebecca Mitchell -

An institution’s reputation is shaped by numerous elements, and differs in the mind from individual to individual. University league tables attempt to offer a formalised and public representation of reputation and quality, to aid and inform prospective students’ choices.

This research investigated the trade-off between a university’s institutional ranking and subject ranking within published league tables. Specifically, whether a university’s overall ranking or subject ranking was seen as more important and whether this change at points during the decision making process.

Primary quantitative research was undertaken with current undergraduate students at the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University, as well as qualitative research with a sample of prospective undergraduate sixth-form students.

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The indicative findings were as follows:

  • Subject rankings were of greater importance to students and applicants when making final choices than institutional rankings. Students reasoned this was because of the need to focus on their own subject of study. The Knowledge Partnership believes most applicants long-list and then apply to universities with a broadly similar institutional ranking, so this acts as a framing variable, not a final discriminating factor.
  • The relative importance of subject rank was stronger for Leeds Beckett students than for University of Leeds students. This may reflect the greater vocational/professional focus of the former’s courses as well as the reality of each institution’s institutional rank. Previous research indicates that institutional ranking is generally more important to better qualified students, who have with greater choice and are considering more elevated institutions.
  • Institutional rankings tend to be used as an initial discriminator before the focus narrows, with the use of subject ranks becoming more critical as the process moves towards making a final short list and ultimate choice. As fees have increased there has been an increased focus on the educational and course experience as a choice factor.
  • Applicants face a dilemma when choosing between universities that display a widely different rank for the subject and the institution overall. There is a trade off here and we evaluated how far the two ranks needed to diverge before a student/applicant would flip their preference.
  • Many in higher education have a longitudinal view of the standing of various universities but each year applicants are fresh into the market (one of the unique characteristics of the HE market). Applicants evaluate rankings in real time so a university with a current high ranking (subject or institutional) that has risen from a longstanding low or moderate rank is perceived as more attractive than a university with a current low ranking that has fallen from an established high ranking.
  • This indicates that applicants are living in the moment and seeking providers that can demonstrate quality today rather than a reliance on previous status/rank. These applicants are subject to cultural influences, advice and guidance, all of which may moderate their choices and impose generalised norms of applicant behaviour. However the underlying tendency is to give weight to current credentials which makes the concept of reputation a much more dynamic one.
  • Previous research by The Knowledge Partnership indicated that prospective UK applicants had an accurate perception of where each university sits in the ranking ladder relative to others.
  • Subject of study (actual or intended) was generally not a significant variable.

It is recommended that universities monitor and communicate departmental rankings effectively, alongside the consideration of sub branding in order to create and sustain flagship subjects.

This approach is most relevant for modern institutions where a high institutional ranking is less achievable and consequently there is a greater reliance on flagship subjects. However, most university course and subject web pages do not highlight subject rank credentials even when there is something to shout about.

Academic research shows that willingness to recommend by, and affinity levels amongst, current students, is affected by their perceptions of the reputation of their university or department. If your subject rank is rising tell your students.

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