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World University Rankings – Frequently Asked Questions

World University Rankings – Frequently Asked Questions main image

Have you ever wondered how world university rankings are created, what they can (and can’t) tell you, and how to use them? With the launch of the new QS World University Rankings® 2016/17 coming soon, we thought we’d answer some of the most common questions asked on this topic.

What are world university rankings?

World university rankings provide annually updated listings of the top universities in the world, compiled using data from trusted sources. There are a number of different world university rankings available, of which the best-known and most-used include the QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) – commonly known as the Shanghai Ranking. There are also specialized world university rankings, including some dedicated to specific subjects, and others dedicated to a particular area of performance, such as the Webometrics ranking, which assesses universities’ online presence and impact.

How are universities assessed?

This varies depending on the ranking – and it’s advisable to always consult the methodology when considering the results. The QS World University Rankings assesses universities using six performance indicators, which each carry a different weighting when calculating overall scores. These indicators are: academic reputation (40%), employer reputation (10%), student-to-faculty ratio (20%), research citations per faculty member (20%), proportion of international faculty (5%) and proportion of international students (5%). The Times Higher Education ranking uses a total of 13 performance indicators, including some, but not all of the same indicators used by QS, and applies slightly different weightings when calculating the final scores. The ARWU ranking has a stronger focus on research performance, and also considers factors such as the number of staff and alumni who have received Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.

How can I use the rankings to help me to choose a university?

World university rankings can be used to help you shortlist universities, gain additional information about universities you’re already considering, or directly compare two or more institutions in specific areas of performance. Subject-specific editions such as the QS World University Rankings by Subject can be particularly useful for students attempting to identify leading institutions in a particular field. You can personalize the results, filtering by location and/or performance indicator, depending on what’s most important to you.

How much importance should I place on rankings when choosing a university?

The amount of importance you give to the rankings is up to you and your personal preference. This will largely depend on how far the criteria used to create the rankings match your own priorities, and how keen you are to study at a highly ranked university. Based on our own research, we’ve found that many students use rankings as a quick way to check the reputation of a university, while many also believe rankings can provide a rough gauge of educational quality, alongside other sources.

Although the rankings can be a useful tool, you should never base your university choice entirely on the results, as statistics can’t give you the full picture of what it’s actually like to study at a university. After consulting the rankings, it’s recommended that you spend time researching the university’s location and ethos, student life and course content – as well as checking the admission requirements and costs. You might find that a university which is not so highly ranked (or not ranked at all – see below), is the best fit for you and your particular circumstances and priorities.

How many universities are ranked?

At QS, we currently rank over 900 universities across the globe (as of the 2016/17 edition), and this number increases every year. Around 800 universities are ranked by Times Higher Education, and 500 by the Shanghai Ranking, or ARWU. Each of the ranking organizations collects data on a much greater number of universities – for instance, QS currently assesses over 3,800 institutions, and ARWU over 1,200 – but only publishes the ranking positions of those at the top of the range.

When are the world university rankings released?

Both the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are released annually in September. Both QS and THE also release additional rankings, dedicated to particular subjects and regions, throughout the year. The Shanghai Ranking (ARWU) is released slightly earlier, with the latest results published on 15 August 2016.

What makes a university eligible to be considered?

To be eligible for inclusion in the QS World University Rankings, a university must teach at multiple study levels (i.e. both undergraduate and postgraduate), and conduct work in at least two of five possible faculty areas (arts and humanities; engineering and technology; social sciences and management; natural sciences; life sciences and medicine).

Similar criteria apply for the Times Higher Education ranking: institutions are excluded if they do not teach at undergraduate level, or if their research output falls below a certain threshold. ARWU considers all universities with Nobel laureates, Fields Medal recipients, highly cited researchers, papers published in Nature or Science, or a significant number of papers indexed in the Science Citation Index or Social Science Citation Index.

Why isn’t *university name* featured in the world university rankings?

There are tens of thousands of universities in the world and unfortunately it’s simply not possible to rank every single one of them. It’s important to remember that even making it to the lowest level of the world university rankings is a great achievement, putting an institution within the top 2 to 5% worldwide. If an institution isn’t featured, this doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’ – it just isn’t within this very top tier.

If you’re confused by the exclusion of a particularly prestigious institution, it may be that the university isn’t eligible for inclusion in the rankings, due to being too specialized, only teaching at one level, or not producing enough highly cited research (see above). Many of the schools that don’t feature in the overall world university rankings do get a chance to shine in the regional rankings and/or the subject rankings. For example, QS’s recently launched performing arts ranking includes many specialized schools that are not eligible for inclusion in the overall rankings, but which excel in this particular field.

Are the world university rankings biased towards English-speaking universities?

It’s easy to think this could be the case, due to the large numbers of universities from Anglophone countries (particularly the US and UK) at the top of the rankings. However, there is no deliberate bias towards English-speaking institutions, and indeed the rankings organizations are committed to making the rankings as fair and accurate as possible. Last year, for example, QS improved the way in which research citations are assessed, to balance out an existing bias in favor of science-focused institutions. In an attempt to provide greater visibility to universities outside of the nations which typically dominate the tables, QS also publishes regional rankings for Asia, Latin America, the Arab region, Emerging Europe and Central Asia (EECA) and the BRICS countries.

I can see that this university is ranked 701+. What is its exact ranking?

In the QS World University Rankings, only the top 400 institutions are given individual ranking positions (the same applies to the top 200 in the Times Higher Education ranking). After this, the universities are grouped into bands, starting from 401-410 in the QS ranking and continuing up until 701+. Precise ranking positions are not published, due to the difficulty of accurately differentiating at this level. If you do want more in-depth information about the university, click on its name in the ranking table – this will bring you to a profile page, where you’ll be able to see if it appears in any of the regional or subject rankings. It may also have been evaluated through the QS Stars rating service, which provides an in-depth assessment of university performance in eight categories. You could also search online for a national ranking of universities in your chosen study destination.

Why are universities sometimes listed in a different order in other ranking tables?

This is caused by the different methodologies used to compile each ranking. You may even find there are variations in the results published by a single organization. For example, QS uses slightly different methodologies for the overall world rankings, subject rankings and regional rankings – which can mean these place universities in a different order. As an example, India’s IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay currently switch places in the overall ranking (in which IIT Delhi is higher) and the Asian ranking (in which IIT Bombay is higher). This is due to the different methodologies used to compile these rankings, and clearly gives you an idea that these particular institutions are quite neck and neck with each other.

Do you have any questions that we didn’t cover here? Let us know in the comments below, ask a question on Twitter or Facebook, or ask a question in our student forum. To read about the QS World University Rankings in more detail, visit the QS Intelligence Unit’s website

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Sabrina Collier's profile image
Written by Sabrina Collier
Sabrina is a content writer for TopUniversities.com, providing guidance on a wide range of topics. A graduate of Aberystwyth University, Sabrina is originally from the West Midlands but now lives in London. 

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