A controversial new league table released this week by the Times Higher Education magazine has ranked the top 200 universities worldwide for the first time according to reputation, rather than actual performance and achievements. The league table, which does not rely on facts, figures and statistics like most top university guides, was created by polling the opinions of 13,000 academics from around the world. The resulting rankings are quite simply based on their received ideas and appraisals of universities around the world based on their reputation and what they have heard about them.

This may seem facetious, and many would argue that there is very little point to a league table that ranks universities by little more than hearsay. Yet in realistic terms, reputation is hugely important to modern universities, particularly as the global higher education market has exploded, with students from 230 countries and territories currently enrolled at UK higher education institutions. Unable to visit and look around, perhaps without immediate access to our Guardian and Times University league tables, the reputation and word-of-mouth report of UK universities is a hugely important factor for overseas applicants deciding where to apply.

The UK performs well against international competition in the table, notching up 29 of the top 200 institutions and coming second only to the US overall. But when you pull out the top 20 UK universities from the list in the order they are ranked (shown in the table above), there are some very interesting surprises indeed.

Only 5 of the top listed institutions in the Guardian 2011 University league table rank in the top 10 of the new list, and two of the very best rated UK universities, Warwick and Loughborough, do not appear in the Times Higher Education list of 200 rankings at all! There are some startling revelations about global perception here – Warwick, third best UK university according to many recent league tables, with an extremely strong UK reputation, simply doesn’t seem to register internationally.

Some of the differences between the two lists seem inevitable; with London the first major city most people internationally associate with the UK, it is unsurprising that there are 6 London universities and colleges in the top 20. But it is interesting that Exeter, Nottingham and Leeds, all very highly respected universities within the UK, come in the bottom 4 UK universities in the list, below several lower achieving universities, indicating a much lower presence internationally than they enjoy at home.

So should universities be concerned, and what does this list mean for prospective students? Well, it is certainly worthwhile to analyse international opinion of the top UK universities; to gain a fresh perspective that takes into account global academic prestige and reputation. But most universities would take this table with a pinch of salt, calculated as it is on opinion and speculation, and we too would advise anybody deciding which universities to apply to that it is more productive to look at league tables taking into account solid statistics such as teacher to student ratio and graduate employment rate.

On the other hand, in this extremely tight economic market where graduate employment is at an all-time low and even having a good degree is no guarantee of landing a job, it is perhaps more important than ever to have an awareness of the most respected institutions from which to earn ones qualifications. In fact, if anything, this table might be most useful to UK students fleeing to study abroad when the astronomical tuition fees of £9000 come into force at English universities next year…