England’s “best” universities

(note, you’ll need to open this post fully to read all the tables)

What are the “best” Universities in England? By apparently common governmental consent, the “best” universities are the most “popular” and/or the most “selective” – a lot of people want to go there, not a lot of people get in.

(of course this has no relation at all to the actual best university, which is the one that offers a particular course and supporting environment that suits a particular student’s needs. Everything else is prejudice, and league table compilers should be ashamed of themselves.)

Just finding the most popular universities yields a surprising list (start this tune here):

Most “popular” English Universities

Number of applicants in each UCAS cycle (data: UCAS)
Prepared by http://followersoftheapocalyp.se
2010   2011   2012
University of Manchester 58,252 Manchester Metropolitan University 58,752 University of Manchester 52,780
Manchester Metropolitan University 54,286 University of Manchester 57,830 University of Nottingham 52,271
University of Leeds 52,823 University of Leeds 52,488 University of Leeds 49,389
University of Nottingham 48,904 University of Nottingham 52,122 Manchester  Metropolitan University 49,327
Sheffield Hallam University 46,218 Sheffield Hallam University 50,596 Sheffield Hallam University 41,737
Kingston University 44,083 Leeds Metropolitan University 46,644 Leeds Metropolitan University 39,504
University of Birmingham 43,383 Kingston University 46,540 Kingston University 39,341
Leeds Metropolitan University 42,806 Nottingham Trent University 43,218 University of Birmingham 38,807
University of Sheffield 39,920 University of Birmingham 42,962 University of Bristol 36,451
Nottingham Trent University 39,525 University of Bristol 39,305 Nottingham Trent University 35,898
Total 2010 applicants 2,720,498 Total 2011 applicants 2,847,012 Total 2012 applicants 2,636,252

The first thing you’ll note is that there is clearly something very wrong with the list – half of the most “popular” universities are post-92 “new” universities, as widely disparaged in the comments sections of  the web presences popular HE-focused magazines.

The second, and perhaps more important, issue is the relative stability of the “top 10″ despite three years of coalition inspired turmoil aimed at ensuring that students get to the universities that they want to. The University of Sheffield dropped out of the “top 10″ in 2011, to be replaced by the University of Bristol, but other than that it’s a fairly stable chart – with the share of the top ten near-static at between 16-17% of all applicants that year.

One further point to note – certain cities (Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds) are consistently popular with students, suggesting that the location of a university may be more important to many students than a number of more fashionable metrics.

All right pop pickers… how about the most selective universities – those that accept the smallest percentage of their applicants each year. Well:

Most “selective” English Universities

Percentage of applicants offered a place in each UCAS cycle, where total number of students accepted >1000 (data: UCAS)
Prepared by http://followersoftheapocalyp.se
2010 % 2011 % 2012 %
London School of Economics 6.90 London School of Economics 7.20 London School of Economics 8.73
University of Bristol 9.79 University of Bristol 9.38 Keele University 11.18
King’s College, London 10.96 King’s College, London 10.21 University of Liverpool 12.49
City University 11.52 University College, London 10.49 University of Greenwich 12.87
University College, London 11.66 Keele University 11.19 King’s College, London 12.87
University of Warwick 11.98 City University 11.43 Brunel University 12.92
University of Birmingham 12.63 University of Chester 11.81 University of Bristol 12.94
University of Sheffield 12.65 University of Warwick 12.14 University College, London 13.01
Queen Mary, University of London 13.00 University of Liverpool 12.29 University of Southampton 13.06
University of the Arts, London 13.22 The University of Birmingham 12.85 University of Leeds 13.15
total % of 2010 applicants offered a place 17.35 total % of 2011 applicants offered a place 16.63 total % of 2012 applicants offered a place 17.01

Well. A good showing by the institutions that we may traditionally *think* of as selective. But no Cambridge. No Oxford (it still remains easier for an applicant to get in to Oxford Brookes than Oxford, as people from Oxford Brookes never tire of telling you!). Not quite as stable a list as the most popular – some one year surprises. And if you include institutions with a recruitment under 1,000 the list is dominated by small specialist institutions, with low applications and even lower student numbers.

One interesting point to note is Bristol University’s decision to become less selective this year, admitting nearly 1,000 more students this year than in 2010 or 2011. Such unexpected growth is possible because of the lifting of the cap on AAB recruitment – it appears Bristol has taken advantage of traditionally strong applications to recruit more students. So academics with itchy bottoms should bookmark the jobs page of Bristol University, one assumes. More prosaically, just because such a rapid expansion is possible for a university, is it necessarily a good idea? Wonks will be watching Bristol student stats very keenly in 12/13, and Bristol students have already picked up on the issue.

But how about the least selective institutions ? Let’s run down from 10 till 1 for each year… ready… not ‘arf:

Least “selective” English Universities

Percentage of applicants offered a place in each UCAS cycle, where total number of students accepted >1000 (data: UCAS)
Prepared by http://followersoftheapocalyp.se
2010 % 2011 % 2012 %
University Campus Suffolk 46.95 University Campus Suffolk 42.31 University Campus Suffolk 39.91
Plymouth University 33.16 University of Cumbria 28.74 Roehampton University 28.77
University College Falmouth 29.08 London Metropolitan University 28.31 Southampton Solent University 27.34
University of Cumbria 28.31 University of Lincoln 27.01 University College Falmouth 27.26
Teeside University 27.63 University of Bolton 26.56 University of Hull 26.61
Roehampton University 27.45 University of Gloucestershire 25.04 Teeside University 25.89
University of East London 27.35 University of Hull 24.48 University for the Creative Arts 25.24
University of Bolton 24.15 University of East London 24.34 University of Cumbria 25.02
University of Hull 23.88 Anglia Ruskin University 24.15 University of Gloucestershire 24.45
University of Bradford 23.75 Southampton Solent University 24.02 Buckinghamshire New University 23.97

First thing to remember is that between 2/3 and 3/4 of applicants to these institutions do not get a place to study there. That’s hardly taking everyone who asks.

Secondly – least selective can also mean most effective marketing. If the students applying are going to be the students  that the institution wants, this is clearly wasting a lot less of everyone’s time. You can see that if you add back in institutions with less than 1,000 students – again, there’s small specialist and local institutions with carefully targeted marketing. A couple of the institutions in the list above (Suffolk, Cumbria) were established comparatively recently to meet particular local needs – the fact that they are accepting so many of the students that are applying could suggest that they are doing what they are designed to do.

But finally, it suggests that we have about the right number of student places in the system for students who want to and are able to benefit from them, and that few if any students would just attend any institution that will take them. Which is a shame, as Lord Browne decided that there weren’t enough places and students would go to the “best” universities they could. A missed opportunity, or a long-term forecast?

I guess we’ll know next year for sure, but changes to the university system like the one last year are nearly as rare as Halley’s Comet.

full data (cc-by-sa, followersoftheapocalyp.se)
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3 thoughts on “England’s “best” universities

  1. Surely the OU is the least selective Uni?
    I wonder if there is some pre-selection for Oxbridge unis. You are told there is no point applying to them unless you’re a superstar student and you have to put them first, and there’s that selection process. So unless you really want them and only them, you don’t put them down.

    1. Yes – though as you apply direct to the OU rather than via UCAS it’s impossible to know for certain. With Oxbridge you have the phenomenon on a candidate that interviews well being given a very low (EE) offer – I’m not sure anyone else does that?

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