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10 Things You Didn’t Know About the QS World University Rankings

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated September 16, 2016 Updated September 16, 2016

You probably know that the QS World University Rankings® is basically an annual list of the world’s top universities. You may also know that this year’s edition is, once again, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Or perhaps you’ve checked the results to see where your own former, current or future institution ranks. But here are 10 things you probably didn’t know…

1. The ranking draws on two record-breaking surveys…

Two of the six metrics used to compile the QS World University Rankings are global surveys – one of academics, and one of graduate employers – asking each group to identify leading institutions in their field. The 2016-17 edition drew on responses from 74,651 academics and 37,781 employers, making these the largest surveys of their kind.

2. And analyzes millions of research papers and citations.

As of 2016-17, the ranking considered a total of 10.3 million research papers and 66.3 million citations – all indexed by the Elsevier's Scopus database, the world’s largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed research. The QS World University Rankings awards each institution a score for citations per faculty member – a reflection of how influential its research is.

3. It’s been running since 2004.

The ranking’s first edition, back in 2004, emerged from growing demand for international comparisons of universities. The primary aim was (and is) to help the burgeoning number of prospective international students assess their options, but the rankings have also increasingly been used by institutions, governments and other organizations, as a tool for benchmarking, marketing, target-setting and identifying partners.

4. The launch is a social (media) event.

Social media may still have been in its infancy when the ranking first launched, but nowadays the publication of the latest results is quite an event across the social media world – particularly on Facebook and Twitter – with last year’s release reaching 18 million social accounts within the first week. If you want to join the conversation this year, just search for #QSWUR.

5. Only three universities have occupied the top spot.

That’s right: the coveted number-one spot has only been held by three institutions. The current title-bearer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is now in its fifth consecutive year at the top, having taken over from the University of Cambridge (currently fourth), which in turn knocked off Harvard University (currently third, having been surpassed by Stanford University this year).

6. It keeps getting bigger (and better) every year.

Having started as a list of 500 universities, the ranking has been expanded each year to cover a larger proportion of the world’s higher education providers (there are estimated to be around 20,000). Based on an evaluation of more than 3,800 institutions, the 2016-2017 edition lists the top 916 (25 more than in 2015-16). The QS Intelligence Unit, which produces the ranking, is also continually working to improve the methodology – for instance, last year new measures were introduced to provide a fairer assessment of research impact.

7. It has four key pillars, and six ingredients.

The QS World University Rankings is based on four key pillars, believed to be of importance for prospective students: teaching, research, employability and internationalization. These four elements are assessed using six performance indicators: the global surveys of academics and employers mentioned above, research citations per faculty member, faculty/student ratio, and the proportion of international students and faculty.

8. It’s used as an ingredient itself.

Having become established as a major index of university performance, the QS World University Rankings is now used in the compilation of other global measures. Since 2013, it’s been used as an indicator in the Global Innovation Index, published annually by Cornell University, INSEAD and the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization. The ranking was also used as a key metric in the Bank of Communications Sea Turtle Index, produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit, which benchmarks potential returns on investment in international education.

9. It’s the head of a growing family.

While the QS World University Rankings remains at the head of the fleet, it’s now joined by a growing collection of specialized rankings. These include regional rankings, subject-specific rankings, rankings of top student cities and of young universities, and (most recently) a ranking of national higher education systems. Alongside the overall QS World University Rankings, the regional rankings for Asia and Latin America have also been audited and approved by the IREG Observatory on Academic Rankings and Excellence – the first international rankings to achieve this.

10. If you’re a prospective student, the ranking is for you!

Although lots of people are interested in the rankings, their raison d'être remains the same as ever – helping prospective students make an informed choice. With this in mind, QS is keen to keep adding new features and functionality to ensure they remain relevant and useful for students. You can now access and personalize the results with the free app (for iPhone and Android), or use the interactive table on the website to directly compare universities on a range of factors, including fees.

Got questions about the rankings? Check out our list of frequently asked questions, or ask a new question in the comments below.

This article was originally published in September 2016 .

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Written by

The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'