QS Best Student Cities 2016: Methodology | Top Universities

QS Best Student Cities 2016: Methodology

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Staff Writer

Updated Mar 05, 2016



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Published annually, the QS Best Student Cities index showcases the best urban destinations for international students, based on a diverse range of indicators grouped into five key categories. These five main categories are: university rankings, affordability, student mix, desirability, and employer activity.

For the 2016 edition, the QS Best Student Cities has been extended to feature the world’s top 75 (previously 50) cities for students.

To be considered for inclusion, each city must have a population of over 250,000, and be home to at least two universities included in the QS rankings. In case of doubt, the metropolitan area is considered, both for population metrics and to assess whether an institution qualifies as contributing to the attractiveness of that city. Current calculations suggest that 116 cities qualify for consideration.

The indicators used to assess each category are outlined below. Unless otherwise stated, the indicators are weighted equally within each category. The five categories are also given equal weighting when calculating the overall order of the index.

University rankings

This category aims to reflect the collective performance of a city’s universities in the QS World University Rankings®. The indicators used relate to magnetism of the large numbers of universities found in large cities, as well as lending recognition to the locations of the world’s elite institutions.

Institution Count [x2]

A score based on a straight count of the number of ranked institutions in the city.

Indexed Score [x3]

This indicator takes into account the collective performance of all institutions in the city. Points are awarded for each institution depending on what ranking range they fall into:






















Top Score

This score is based on the position of the highest-ranked institution in the city.

Student Mix

This category is designed to look at the student make-up of the city, both overall and from an international perspective. Cities with higher proportions of students are likely to be better equipped with the facilities students need, while areas with high numbers of international students are more likely to be well-prepared to welcome even more.

Student Population

A simple score based on the number of students at ranked institutions as a proportion of the city’s population.

International Volume [x2]

A score based on the total number of international students enrolled at ranked institutions.

International Ratio [x2]

A score based on the total number of international students as a proportion of all students studying at ranked institutions in the city.

Tolerance & Inclusion [x2]

This indicator was added for the 2015 edition of the index. It reflects the importance for many international students of choosing a study environment which is likely to be hospitable to their own cultural background, lifestyle and identity. This score is based on the Social Progress Index, which tracks indicators by country on a variety of aspects, including Tolerance & Inclusion.


This category aims to reflect the overall desirability of each destination. While students may be seeking exciting cities rich in opportunity, they (and their parents) are also likely to be concerned about the safety of the locality. A broad range of metrics is considered in an attempt to reflect these diverse requirements.

Economist Liveability Index [x5]

A score based on the results of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Liveability Index.

GaWC+ Score [x3]

A score based on the Globalization and World Cities index (GaWC), compiled at the University of Loughborough. An Alpha++ rating achieves 12 points, scaled down to 1 point for a “Sufficiency” rating.

Further points boosts (up to a limit based on the number of cities included therein) are available for inclusion in any of the following:

Safety Score [x2]

This score is based on the safety index compiled by Numbeo (the inverse of the crime index). For the 2016 edition of the QS Best Student Cities, the Numbeo results are augmented by data from the personal safety indicator of the Social Progress Index (country level), and The Economist’s Safe Cities Index.

In each case the results are scored based on the distance from the mean position, with the top cities in each index receiving a positive result and the bottom cities a negative result. In the few cases where there is no city data available, the mean of all cities in that country is applied.

Pollution Score

Health and wellbeing are also important factors for prospective students and their parents, and air quality can vary greatly. This aspect is not highly weighted, but provides an interesting accent in the desirability category. This score is also derived from data gathered by Numbeo. In the few cases where there is no city data available, the mean of all cities in that country is applied.

Corruption Score [x2]

Transparency International produces a well-known Corruption Perceptions Index, which provides insight into the presence of corruption in the public sector – of which higher education is typically a part – by country. This score is included to reflect the fact that international students and their parents may want to be reassured that their fees are reaching the right places.

Employer activity

This category aims to provide an indication of which cities are most highly sought among graduate employers. Two of the indicators considered are based on QS’s annual international employer survey, which asks recruiters to identify the institutions they believe to be producing the best graduates in their sector.

Domestic Employer Popularity

A score based on the number of domestic employers who identified at least one institution in the city as producing excellent graduates, in QS’s employer survey.

International Employer Popularity [x4]

A score based on the weighted count of international employers who identified at least one institution in the city as producing excellent graduates. Since all of QS’s work is focused on supporting international students and opportunities for mobility, this indicator carries twice the weight of the domestic alternative.

Youth Employment Bonus

For the 2016 edition, a bonus or penalty is applied based on World Bank figures for youth employment in the given country. The top and bottom quartile receive a 5% boost or handicap, while the top and bottom 5% of countries for youth employment receive a 10% adjustment.


The fifth category recognizes the importance of affordability for most prospective students and their families. It draws on a range of sources to give an indication of how affordable a city is likely to be, when tuition fees and general living expenses are considered.

Tuition Fees [x3]

Usually the most substantial outlay for a student, particularly for an international student, global trends suggest that tuition fees are likely to play an increasing role in shaping international student mobility trends in the coming years. This score carries twice the weight of the other affordability indicators.

Big Mac Index [x2]

A score based on this well-known index of retail pricing in cities worldwide, compiled and published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

IPad Index [x2]

A score based on the iPad Index, compiled by Commsec, which compares the price of an iPad in different countries, giving an additional insight into local living costs.

Mercer Cost of Living Index

This index provides a good counterpoint to the other affordability measures considered. For instance, Hong Kong is among the cheapest locations according to the Big Mac Index, but the second most expensive city in the Mercer Cost of Living Index, due to factors such as the high costs of accommodation. Considering this selection of indicators together provides a fuller picture.


Each indicator is converted into an ordinal by ranking the results and subtracting the rank of each result from the maximum. In some cases the underlying data is slightly reconfigured to ensure comparable application of weights (i.e. tuition fee values are organized into ranges). The resulting scores are combined with the weights shown above (these are relative weights within the category) and scaled to the top-performing city in the category to give a score with a maximum of 100 for each category, which are then summed to produce the final score, out of a theoretical maximum of 500.

The final table is presented based on an overall score out of 100, showing rank, score, country and city names and scores out of 100 in each of the five categories.