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UK Postgraduate Rankings: A Brief Rankings Review

There are official and unofficial ways that postgraduate programs and universities are ranked in the UK. Here we give you a brief overview of the best ranking sources.

League tables that rank universities by a range of different data are practically an institution in the UK university system: students are obsessed with them, universities fawn over them and staff hate them with a passion. You can hardly find an undergraduate who did not pour over league tables when trying to pick a university, but can the same be said for postgraduate students? Simply put, rankings and league tables are less helpful for postgraduates than undergraduates not only because there are less sources, but also because the data is less relevant.

The most important factors in choosing a place to study as a postgraduate are factors like the staff in the department or the research angles – things a league table is unlikely to tell you. However for international students who could not guess at the difference in quality between for example the University of Cambridge and the University of Cumbria, league tables at least give a rough estimate at the best universities in a certain field. Used in conjunction with other methods, rankings can be helpful when choosing a place for postgraduate study.

The Guardian Postgraduate League Tables

UK Postgraduate Rankings: A Brief Overview

The Guardian is currently the only British national newspaper that publishes a postgraduate league table of note, and as such it is seen as gold dust to some prospective postgraduates. The table however does not have much to say on the quality of the institutions: instead it works best as collating several bits of useful data on universities. Separated by subject, the table lists information on universities’ price, number of students, staff-to-student ratios and other pieces of information. It’s not necessarily the kind of information you should base your entire decision on, but it’s useful to have.

The Research Assessment Exercise

While not strictly a ‘league table’, the Research Assessment Exercise is a useful tool for prospective postgraduates to look at the quality of the research undertaken at certain universities – an important factor for postgraduates. Undertaken every five years (the most recent being RAE 2008), the Research Assessment Exercise assesses the quality of work submitted by institutions and assesses it on a scale of 4* to 1*, with the former indicating ‘quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ and the latter indicating ‘quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’.

You can examine the last Research Assessment Exercise either by institution or by subject. While the data can be a little dated, it is a good way to see if the overall quality of research from a university or academic department is high – something prospective postgraduates should always bear in mind.

Undergraduate League Tables

Most league tables produced are aimed at undergraduates, using several variables like the staff-to-student ratio in undergraduate classes, the National Student Satisfaction Survey and research quality. While you may think that undergraduate league tables are of no use to you, there is some information that can be gleaned from them.

•    As a rule of thumb, departments with strong undergraduate programmes tend to have good postgraduate programmes as well. It’s not always strictly true, but if you see that LSE, Oxford and Aberystwyth are top for politics at undergraduate level, chances are they’ll be good postgraduate institutions as well. You should always do more research, but it’s one possible way of narrowing down the field.
•    The National Student Satisfaction Survey is taken by undergraduates in their final year, and often accurately gauges how enjoyable students find the experience of attending a particular university. It’s something that postgraduates should certainly be conscious of, even if it is more tailored towards undergraduates.
•    They are a useful way to get a bird’s-eye view of a university: if you know nothing about a university it is a great way of gaining some essential facts about the size, type, and quality of the university.