University Rankings: What Do You Make of Them?

What are university rankings? Should I trust them, and which should I use?

When researching higher education options or looking up a university’s credentials, it is easy to get confused with the abundance of ranking lists you will find online.

There are over ten global higher education ranking systems today, with the major and more prominent ones being the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, and Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

Every year, these ranking lists publish their annual scoreboard result of the world’s top universities. Unfortunately, the attention and hype around these lists can sometimes cause stress for students who are still figuring out their study options.

You may not be one of them, but it helps to understand the rankings, how the scores are computed, and how you can use them in context to choose the right institution and programme that will give you the highest chance at a bright future.

A Ranking Resource Not Only for Students

Besides serving as a resource for students, university rankings also function as an assessment and benchmark tool for universities in evaluating their competitiveness on a national and global scale, guiding them in their marketing and management decisions focused on improving their university’s competitiveness.

On that note, the smaller or lesser-known universities may not have as big a budget to promote themselves. And because of their size, niche, or unique programme structure, some may not even meet the eligibility criteria set by the rankings. But does sitting further down on the list make these universities less capable of educating and nurturing their students to success?

Not Comparing Apples to Apples

Let’s look at how our local universities, including those from our students’ top destinations for overseas education, rank across the major lists in 2022.

SingaporeNational University of Singapore ranks 11th (QS), 21st (THE), 75th (ARWU)
Nanyang Technological University ranks 19th (QS), 46th (THE), 81st (ARWU)
United KingdomUCL ranks 8th (QS), 18th (THE), 17th (ARWU)
The University of Edinburgh ranks 15th (QS), 30th (THE), 38th (ARWU)
AustraliaThe University of Melbourne ranks 33rd (QS), 33rd (THE), 33rd (ARWU)
The University of Sydney ranks 41st (QS), 58th (THE), 69th (ARWU) 
JapanThe University of Tokyo ranks 23rd (QS), 35th (THE), 24th (ARWU)
Kyoto University ranks 55th (QS), 61st (THE), 37th (ARWU)

We see a big difference in how the same university ranks across the lists. This is because each ranking system rates universities based on a combination of different performance indicators and assign different priorities to each criterion to derive the overall score. 

For example, QS evaluates universities based on their academic reputation (40%), employer reputation (10%), faculty-student ratio (20%), research citation per faculty (20%), international faculty ratio (5%), and international students ratio (5%), while THE uses a different set of indicators: teaching (30%), research (30%), research citation (30%), international outlook (7.5%), and industry income (2.5%).

As such, we are not comparing apples to apples. And you wonder how statistically significant (or insignificant) the difference between one university ranked #120 and another ranked #150. It is also worth noting that, in a ranking system, the positioning of one player is relative to another player’s performance. Hence a university dropping in year-over-year rankings may not mean they have done anything poorly, and vice versa.

Focus on Rankings Meaningful to You

Instead of looking at the overall scores and scratching your head over which list to use, explore the ranking lists independently and break them down by the individual performance indicators that matter to you. 

Toggle the filters to search by region or country, and check subject/course-specific rankings targeting a discipline you are interested in. International students might be interested in understanding the university’s international student ratio, while PhD students are likely to prioritise a university’s research excellence. For those with a keen interest in the environment, both QS and THE provide ratings based on the university’s commitment to advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Does University Reputation Matter? 

When weighing higher education options, it is easy to get caught up in the university’s reputation. It is true that in some industries, employers associate certain universities with producing the best talents for a specific course of study. But name recognition should not be the only reason you choose a university. 

In fact, a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies Degree found that graduates with a good degree from less prestigious universities earn more than those with a lower-class degree from selective institutions, implying that grade matters more than university reputation. 

In reality, how others might view a university name is insignificant compared with how the institution aligns with the student’s personal needs and goals. This includes the ability to afford the course tuition fees, which makes a huge deciding factor, also requiring the consideration of applying for scholarships to fund the higher learning journey. 

The Intangibles

University rankings adopt a statistical approach to defining a university’s quality. Most criteria, such as reputation, employability, research recognition, awards, graduate salaries, industry collaborations, staff-to-student ratio, etc., are all quantifiable.

But how do we truly rank a rewarding study experience? We forget that campus life, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is just as important. But how do you put a score to measure campus facilities, extra-curricular options, friendships and emotional support from future peers and mentors, and cultural diversity? That’s a tough one.   

There’s no better way to learn more about a university than to hear directly from the students and professors. Attend career fairs and open houses; source interview profiles of graduates, undergraduates, and scholars; ask questions on forums. Get out there and do your own research. Compile your own data and plot your own rankings based on your priorities! University rankings should only be one of the many resources you use to evaluate your higher education options.