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A Decade of International University Rankings: What do Students Think?

A Decade of International University Rankings: What do Students Think? main image

International university rankings have always been closely connected to the increase in internationally mobile students, and the QS rankings in particular have been developed with a focus on providing useful information for prospective students.

With visits to the online tables growing steadily each year, it seems prospective students do view the rankings as a key resource when choosing an institution. In a survey of QS World Grad School Tour attendees conducted in 2013-14,  just under 70% of respondents rated university rankings websites as either “essential” or “very important” when making decisions about higher education – with only official university websites named as a more crucial online resource (see the full report here).

But what do students really think about international university rankings? How do they use the rankings, and what would they like to see added or improved over the next 10 years? We asked four international students to share their views…

A useful tool for university comparison

All four of our interviewees said they’d used international university rankings as a quick method of university comparison at an early stage in their research. Romanian student Valeria Burdea, who completed her master’s degree in the Netherlands and is now preparing to start a PhD in the UK, says she considered the rankings “an efficient method to get a first idea of what were the best universities in my field of interest.”

Aliya Sagandykova, from Kazakhstan and currently studying in Portugal, likewise describes international university rankings as a key university comparison tool, particularly if focused on a specific region and/or subject area. “Consulting rankings helps you to get rid of stereotypes and to start drawing a clearer picture about the faculties. Depending on the filters available, it should be possible to make your own ranking consisting of five ‘best for you’ programs.”

This personalized approach is similarly advocated by Zain Nabi, a Pakistani national currently completing a master’s degree in Australia. “It is essential for students to find out more about their field of interest through rankings, and see if there are better options to study a particular subject at different institutions.” He adds that he was personally most interested in the indicators based on universities’ research output.

Californian Felix von Wendorff, completing his undergraduate studies in Germany, again acknowledges the importance of international university rankings in helping prospective students create a shortlist from the “thousands of good institutions” now competing for their consideration. “Society is asking a lot from our young adults to choose a career at only 18 years old. But selecting a career path is still easier than choosing what university to attend,” he believes. “University rankings provide a unique service: helping young scholars traverse the murky waters of college acceptance, they can be a handy guide to start selecting interesting universities.”

The dangers of over-reliance on university rankings

Recognizing the impracticality of trawling through hundreds of individual websites, students are quick to express appreciation for the function of university rankings as a shortlisting aid. As Valeria says, “They are easy to access and easy to read, in the sense that the information is well presented and allows for an efficient comparison between universities.”

Yet while this condensation of information has clear benefits, students are also aware of the dangers of over-simplification. “Using [a ranking] as a starting selection tool to give you ideas about where to apply and to help whittle down your choices is good. But often, especially in the US, university rankings are used as the only metric for choosing one university over another,” Felix says. “This means universities then develop brand names which are internationally well-known, but often distracts from what is most important: the quality of education.”

Zain agrees, pointing out that the rankings tables can only ever present a partial view: “The data present online helps, but it can never give the perfect picture.” This means the imperative is on individuals to dig deeper, and attempt to understand what information has (and hasn’t) been used to compile the list.

In Valeria’s eyes, rankings providers could help here by ensuring the methodology is transparently and effectively communicated. “I believe it is not very clear how these rankings are made – whether they are done based on the number of publications of the professors, on the number of citations, on the journals they are published in, on the facilities of the universities, on the opportunities students have after finishing their studies in a respective university, or other factors.”

What next for university rankings?

Looking to the future, all four students forecast an ever more important and influential role for international university rankings, as both student mobility and demand for graduates with international experience continue to grow. “Nation-specific rankings are going to be sailing into a stiff wind, because employers will oftentimes choose one employee over another if they have studied in a foreign country,” Felix says. “Someone who only feels comfortable in their parents’ home or close to it is not going to be able to compete effectively in the globalized economy.”

But, while predicting growing demand for international university rankings, students are not shy when it comes to challenging the rankings providers to up their game. All four of our interviewees expressed ambitious visions for the next decade of rankings, anticipating ever more sophisticated, targeted and extensive layers of information to help students make better-informed decisions.

With graduate employability topping many prospective students’ priority lists, both Zain and Aliya highlight this as a field where additional data would be especially welcome. Zain suggests this could be measured not just through employer reputation, as is currently the case in the QS World University Rankings, but also by showing graduate employment rates. “I would really love to see how graduates of any institution fare in the job market. I would like to know how many of them get professional jobs soon after graduation, and how many had to wait,” he says.

Calls for more sophisticated university comparisons

Felix takes this a stage further, calling for a more nuanced measure of universities’ role in boosting salary prospects, taking into account students’ backgrounds as well as their achievements. “The thing I want to know is if there is a university where students who attend are significantly more successful than those who were accepted and did not attend. Because that would, at least for me, make it obvious that a specific university can add unique value to students instead of just teaching them facts… As far as I know, no ranking organization measures add-on value to students. So that’s what I would like to be measured!”

Valeria highlights costs and funding opportunities among the key factors considered by many prospective students, suggesting that this kind of data could be provided as part of the university comparison. She also proposes adapting the methodology to match the priorities of students at different study levels. “The current QS methodology is perfect for undergraduate studies. But for those interested in postgraduate degrees, the emphasis should be more on the universities’ publications – the journals, the citations – but also on the research facilities they have.”

Alongside all of this, of course, students expect rankings providers to adhere to high standards of accuracy and independence. “The main point with the rankings is to keep them unbiased and up-to-date,” Aliya summarizes.

While unabashed in their demands for more extensive and targeted data, our student interviewees generally present a very positive attitude towards the rankings enterprise. Their attitudes towards international university rankings reflect a wider sense of excitement at the prospect of ever-expanding opportunities for international study and employment. “As the number of great universities around the globe grows, the demand for such rankings will increase and become more and more influential,” Felix says. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am really excited about this new globalized higher education: bachelor in Europe, master’s in Asia, PhD in the US, anyone?”

What do you think about international university rankings? What would you like to see added or improved? Leave a comment below.

Written by Laura Bridgestock
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?'

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