University rankings

A closer look for research leaders
Updated: September 21, 2020

1. What are University Rankings?

University rankings are diverse, imperfect — and influential.

Your university has a unique mission and works hard to attract the best students, talent, and funding to support that mission. On the flip side, potential students, researchers, faculty members, (and, in some countries, even policymakers and funding agencies) look for help to in deciding why your university best fits their interests. Enter the world of University Rankings.

Chapters:

  1. What are University Rankings?
  2. Why do rankings matter?
  3. Who publishes University Rankings?
  4. How are rankings calculated?
  5. Can I influence university rankings?

Rankings are not perfect, but useful

Although not perfect, and certainly not the only input needed, university rankings and league tables provide a way to compare higher education institutions based on a set of similar criteria and are readily available.

“While university rankings are one of the essential ways of measuring the quality of higher education, quality measurement in higher education is a multi-dimensional problem that cannot be based solely on rankings.” (Gokcen Arkali Olcay, Melih Bulu, Is measuring the knowledge creation of universities possible?: A review of university rankings, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 123, 2017, Pages 153-160, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2016.03.029)

Rankings are often met with criticism, especially when conflated with reputation. It is important to keep in mind that league tables do have their limitations and only provide one indication of university performance. Rankings, therefore, should be used as supportive tools, not as a stand-alone measurement.

Rankings are many, and not one size fits all

Just as each university is unique in its mission and purpose, each ranking and league table has its niche and focus. There are over 20 global university ranking reports or organizations alone, and each has its own methodology, data sources and set of indicators.

The table below provides a quick glance into the proliferation of ranking organizations over time, including various league tables added along the way to address the different types of universities and their missions.

International rankings organizations

According to the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, rankings organizations need to

“Recognize the diversity of institutions and take the different missions and goals of institutions into account. Quality measures for research-oriented institutions, for example, are quite different from those that are appropriate for institutions that provide broad access to underserved communities.”

Rankings are influential

Whether from the perspective of a student, parent, researcher, potential faculty, funder, or another entity, rankings help build one perspective on a university's success or fit, objectively.

2. Why do rankings matter?

In the past 18 years, international university rankings have grown in visibility and prominence and, in some countries, can influence:

  • How governments measure research excellence for your institution
  • The criteria used by undergraduate students, parents and graduate students when choosing a university
  • Why a company selects you as a partner
  • A funding body’s decision to invest in research at your university

illustration - climbing ranks

Although rankings are not the sole indicator of an institution's reputation and academic excellence, they do provide a quantitative and popular way to benchmark universities nationally, regionally and globally.

Why rankings can play a role in attracting international students

One area where rankings make an impact is in attracting international students. In 2014, Ellen Hazelkorn shared in a Times Higher Education blog post, “An assessment tool to be used with care,”

“In the global marketplace, rankings bring visibility. This is essential because of the growing percentage of undergraduates and postgraduates who have a high interest in the rankings. High-achieving and wealthier students are most likely to make choices based on them. Likewise, international students continue to rate reputation and ranking positions as key determinants in their choice of institution, programme and country, more than, say, institutional websites.”

The international student has economic significance, to both the university and its country or region. In the United States alone, the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) recently reported that

international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2018-2019 academic year.” Source accessed on July 28, 2020: https://www.nafsa.org
Source: BPC Calculations from the International Institute of Education and The National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education

Looking at the Universities UK’s website, they report that

“As of 2018 the U.K. remained the second most popular destination for international students to study higher education globally with only the USA ahead of it. This position is however increasingly coming under threat from Australia which has experienced strong growth in recent years. Between 2011/12 and 2017/18 the U.K. saw a 5% growth in international student numbers compared to 73% in Australia. Despite recent decreases since 2016 the USA also experienced 31% growth over the same time period.” Source accessed August 6, 2020

How does the number of international students studying in the U.K. compare to other countries?

Source: www.universitiesuk.ac.uk

In November 2019, the Australian Minister of Education, The Hon Dan Tehan MP, shared that

“International education has experienced its fifth year of consecutive double digit growth, highlighting the strength of Australia’s higher education system” and that the “International education contributed $37.6 billion to the Australian economy last financial year, which was a $5 billion increase.” Source accessed August 6, 2020.

Rankings increase your university’s visibility

For the international student, rankings and league tables often weigh into their decision-making process when considering return on investment; therefore, being ranked, even regardless of position, can help you to be considered.

3. Who publishes University Rankings?

Rankings are developed and published by a range of entities, including magazines, newspapers, websites, academics, and governments. Some ranking organizations specialize in global rankings, others in national or regional, and a few do both. This page primarily discusses ranking organizations producing world university rankings and who focus on research output.

Who publishes University Rankings - illustration

A brief history of global rankings

The rise of global rankings (as shared in our earlier chart) is frequently marked by Shanghai Jiao Tong’s introduction of the “Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)” in 2003, and attributed to an increasingly globalized economy and competitiveness. The growing attention toward higher education and university-based research, led to a need for a comparative framework. Source: Hazelkorn, E., Gibson, A. Global science, national research, and the question of university rankings. Palgrave Commun 3, 21 (2017). https://doi.org

From 2003 on, multiple ranking organizations and reports have entered the arena, expanding options into how Higher Education Institutions can be compared and with greater variety in niche reports.

Two examples of this are:

  • QS World Rankings' ‘University Rankings by Subject,’ created in 2011, which accounts for the varying research cultures and publication rates across academic disciplines
  • Times Higher Education’s (THE) 2019 launch of the THE Impact Rankings, “a new global university ranking that aims to measure institutions’ success in delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

From The Economist:

“The rankings race is thus marked by a happy irony. Driven in part by nationalistic urges, it has fostered the growth of a community that knows no borders. Critics are right that governments and universities obsess too much about rankings. Yet the world benefits from the growth of this productive, international body of scholars." Source accessed July 28, 2020: https://www.economist.com

What are some of the key global ranking organizations and how do they differ?

Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) and Shanghai Ranking (the Academic Ranking of World Universities; ARWU) are considered among most established and prominent global ranking bodies.

Seven key global ranking reports to know are (in alphabetical order):

Quick guide - 7 major ranking report You can get a quick glance about seven major ranking reports in this guide

Download the quick guide (PDF 983.0 KB)

Shanghai Rankings logo

Report: Shanghai Rankings
Focus: Global
Scope: 1800+ institutions are ranked annually, top 1000 are published
Timing: Annually (August)

THE World University Rankings logo

Report: World University Rankings
Focus: Global
Scope: 1,400+ institutions
Timing: Annually (September)

QS World University Rankings logo

Report: World University Rankings
Focus: Global
Scope: 1,000 institutions
Timing: Annually (Spring)

US news university rankings logo

Report: Best University Rankings
Focus: Global
Scope: 1,500 institutions across more than 80 countries
Timing: Annually (October)

THE impact rankings logo

Report: Impact Rankings
Focus: United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Scope: 1,250 institutions (changes annually)
Timing: April

World university rankings By Subject logo

Report: WUR by Subject
Focus: Individual subject areas (48)
Scope: 1,00 institutions
Timing: Annually (Spring)

CWTS Leiden Ranking logo

Report: CWTS Leiden Rankings
Focus: Research-intensive universities
Scope: 1,000 institutions
Timing: Annually (June)

4. How are rankings calculated?

Before diving into how rankings are calculated, keep in mind there are vast differences and limitations to rankings, and that they are not intended to be the sole indication of reputation or excellence.

Calculating rankings

Lydia Snover, director of institutional research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a Times Higher Education (THE) blog post

“Let me be clear: there is no such thing as a perfect university ranking. There is no ‘correct’ outcome as there is no single model of excellence in higher education, and every ranking is based on the available, comparable data, and is built on the subjective judgement (over indicators and weightings) of its compilers.”

Why is it important to understand methodologies

By understanding the inner workings of rankings, universities gain insights into how their practices and data can ultimately influence a rankings outcome.

The focus area(s), algorithms and methodologies vary across the growing number of ranking tables and reports produced by ranking organizations worldwide.

Where do ranking organizations get their data and information?

All ranking methodologies rely on data inputs from a range of external resources. These can often include the three examples below, but varies based on the niche and focus of each league table:

  • Your university’s institutional data and researcher data (based on research output) from bibliometric or citation indexing databases, such as Scopus
  • Relevant data on human resources, student administration, finances
  • Reputation surveys from faculty, students, alumni and employers

Similarly, the weighting and calculations of the above, and other factors, range greatly based on the specific focus of the ranking report.

Looking for data

How can I find out what weighting and calculation ranking organizations apply?

Most ranking organizations offer some level of information on their methodology on their websites. This can help you to better understand which ranking focuses on and what data and information informs the results. For research-intensive universities, you can get a quick overview here (or download the pdf below).

You can get a quick glance about seven major ranking reports in this guide

This quick reference table provides a look into seven major and influential ranking reports. Use it to quickly compare the different focuses methodologies between the repots.

Note: This information provides a snapshot view of these rankings sourced from their own publicly available websites. Visit their websites to get more details directly from the ranking organizations.

Download the quick guide (PDF 983.0 KB)

CWTS Leiden Ranking logo

CWTS Leiden Rankings

QS World University Rankings logo

World University Rankings

World university rankings By Subject logo

WUR by Subject

Shanghai Rankings logo

Shanghai Rankings

THE World University Rankings logo

World University Rankings

THE impact rankings logo

Impact Rankings

US news university rankings logo

Best University Rankings

5. Can I influence university rankings?

If you seek to establish, maintain or improve your institution's reputation and standing, understanding the impact of your university's data and information in the calculation of international university rankings is essential. These data points can include: stay on top pictogram

  • Your research output
  • Citation data
  • Institutional data

Further, gaining insight into what that data includes and where it can be improved puts you in a better position to manage your university’s rankings and reputation.

Rankings evolve, staying on top of changes is key

Even if your university has placed high in its valued rankings, algorithms and methodologies change, as do institutional priorities and research outputs. By understanding the inner workings of rankings, and monitoring them on an ongoing basis, both large and small universities can improve their practices in ways that ultimately will influence their ranking.

What are some steps I can take to influence ranking outcomes?

When you begin to investigate how you can influence rankings, the questions below can help you put you on a good path forward.

Which ranking should I focus on first?

What is the methodology applied by the ranking organization?

  • Research information on their website (or begin from our slides on this page)
  • Look for webinars or virtual events hosted by the ranking organizations themselves; many include deep-dive courses on their methodology
  • The QS Events
  • The THE events

What is the source of citation and publication information and data?

  • Who supplies the data?
  • What is included, e.g., article types, are self-citations included or excluded?
  • Aside from research influence or citations, does the same data impact other parts of the methodology e.g., international collaboration?
  • What weighting or adjustments are placed on certain areas?

Do I have a data-hygiene plan and schedule?

  • Understand your research output data and how you can review, correct and validate information related to your institution
  • Work with partners within your university to enable researchers to pro-actively maintain their research profiles, activities and information
  • Know the ranking bodies’ timeline for pulling data, and establish a schedule to make sure changes are made in time

NOTE: THE and QS both use data from Scopus, which can be pro-actively optimized through the Institution Profile Wizard to better reflect your institution’s output.

Ebook: Understand Scopus and SciVal’s role in university rankings

Ebook - Understand Scopus and SciVal’s role in university rankingsSee the Elsevier ebook for a deep-dive into the data behind THE and QS rankings, and also learn from Liz Bober, Library Assessment Officer at Case Western Reserve University, on how she did this for her university.

Download the ebook (PDF 2.7 MB)

Webinar: “Optimizing Scopus research data points for Times Higher Education rankings”.

Which tools can give me views into my university and researcher performance?

Invest in and leverage tools like SciVal that give you insightful views into your university and researcher performance, allowing you to:

  • Benchmark and monitor progress
    As one example, you can monitor and benchmark the progress of the research entities available in SciVal using the metrics below, as well as the subject areas used by THE:
  • Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) and the proportion of a university's total publications that have at least one international co-author are two metrics used in the THE World University Rankings. These metrics are available in SciVal. NOTE: You can change the subject areas to the 11 subject areas used in the THE World University Rankings.
Proportion of total publications with at least one international co-author

Proportion of total publications with at least one international co-author
Source: SciVal

  • Identify, develop and analyze collaborations
  • Understand your unique strengths

The bottom line: Will I rise in the rankings?

Although a proactive data hygiene practice cannot guarantee a rise in rankings, it can lead to a more accurate reflection of your university in ranking outcomes through the validation of research output and citation data attributed to your institution. Further, deep analyses of the same data can yield actionable insights that drive your institutional strategy forward and help you manage your reputation.