A simple guide to university rankings

Trying to make a choice between universities? Find out how understanding rankings can help you make a decision.

About six minutes

Did you know five of Scotland’s universities are ranked in the world’s top 200?(1) 

It sounds good. But what makes a university get a high ranking? Well, it depends on who you ask. Each ranking system or university league table uses a different method to define what makes a good university. The things that matter to them might not be your top priority. 

But if you want to go to uni and you’re struggling to make a choice, the information they provide can be really useful. So, we’ve broken it down to help you understand the type of information you could get, and where to look. 

Three types of statistics to look out for (and why they’re important)

1. Student satisfaction

Pretty important given how much time you’ll spend at uni. These scores are made up of lots of different factors – including things like teaching, academic support or university facilities. 

Sites like Unistats let you break satisfaction scores down to course level. This gives you a clearer picture of what students thought, before you make your decision.

2. Graduate job prospects

Graduates are asked what they’re doing, six months after graduation. Their answers give universities, and courses, a score for job prospects. 

You can see whether people are in work, study, or are unemployed, get an idea of whether they’re at managerial or lower levels, and what the average salary is. 

It might seem like a long way off from where you are now, but job prospects should be a factor in your decision. If the score for this column is low, you need to think about why. Is it more important to you to study something you love?

3. Subject ranking

Overall, university ranking is all well and good. But say you’re desperate to study chemistry. You can find out which is the top-ranked university for chemistry in Scotland, the UK or the world. Always check the ranking for the course, not just for the university. 

Where to look

Unistats – best for comparing courses across the UK

This site brings together the results of the National Student Survey. You can search by subject, qualification, study mode, location, and characteristics (like sandwich years, foundation years, or a year abroad). You can filter down to the courses you’re interested in, and compare them. 

These results are full of useful information – from student satisfaction rates, to an idea of accomodation costs, whether the course is accredited and the amount of time you’ll spend in lectures. As well as details on universities, there’s data on individual courses and student reviews.

The Complete University Guide – best for looking up Scottish rankings

This site ranks universities in Scotland and the UK. It uses data from the National Student Survey, the Research Excellence Framework, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and universities themselves. 

Their ranking system uses measures like entry standards, student satisfaction, graduate prospects, student-staff ratio, and spending.

The guide also offers university and city or town profiles, student reviews, and information on things like crime in university towns.

QS Top Universities – best for faculty rankings and QS Star rating

This site shows you how UK universities rank internationally – including ranking by subject or faculty. It gives guides to some universities, and some stats and information about the country. 

It ranks based on things like academic reputation, employer reputation and student-to-faculty ratio.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings – international ranking with related articles

The Times rankings use 13 different performance indicators to rank universities by teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. You can find out more about each university, and see how they rank by subject.

The Guardian University Guide – best for parent and postgraduate guides

This site uses stats from the National Student Survey. It lets you compare different courses to find out what students thought of them, and how satisfied they are. There’s also university profiles to give you an idea of what each uni is like. 


1. According to the 2016-2017 Times Higher Education rankings, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dundee feature in the top 200.