League tables play key role in study choices

Published: 7 September 2015 at 12:00

Students in library

Newly-published research shows importance of rankings for university applicants

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Research published by the journal The Manchester School shows the crucial role that league tables play in application decisions – particularly for international students.

The study, carried out by Dr Xiaoxuan Jia of Anglia Ruskin University and Dr Arnaud Chevalier of Royal Holloway, University of London, uses application data for UK universities.

The researchers found that a one standard deviation change in the university's subject-level ranking score, which equates to eight points, is associated with a 4.3% average increase in application numbers.

Changes to the ranking score have a disproportional effect on foreign applicants, with non-EU students over four times more sensitive to changes in 'quality' than UK students.

Although a one standard deviation change in ranking score marginally increases the number of UK applications (1.8%), for EU and non-EU applications this stands at 5.8% and 7.4%, respectively.

Dr Jia and Dr Chevalier studied application data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) over an eight-year period (2004-11) and collected their data at subject level.

They also used subject-specific rankings rather than a university's overall ranking, because applicants' decisions are primarily bound by provision of the subject they intend to study.

Their findings show that applicants are 50 per cent more sensitive to changes in quality at faculty level than university level.

Dr Jia, a Lecturer in Economic and Financial Analysis at Anglia Ruskin University, said: "Distance and cost mean international students are less likely to attend open days, which give prospective students the opportunity to explore a university and speak to academics.

"Without this first-hand experience, international students are more reliant on external information, such as the league tables published in various university guides.

"This, and the fact students from outside the EU face higher tuition fees, means they can be far more sensitive to changes in quality as shown through changes in ranking scores."

The study used Guardian league tables and has been published in Early View format by The Manchester School. The research paper will appear in a future print edition of the journal.