Updated: Oct 30, 2020
By Hannah Lettmann
Deciding which university to apply to is never an easy task, especially not amidst a global pandemic. Whether you are just starting university or are considering a postgraduate degree, university rankings can be a helpful starting point when deciding where to continue with your studies. Here is a quick overview of the different university rankings found both in the UK and worldwide. We explain what they mean and what else you may want to take into account when choosing a university.
What are the different university rankings?
Starting with the UK, there are three UK university rankings published every year:
These rankings are then combined by Times Higher Education into an overall league table. As of now, only The Complete University Guide has published its 2021 rankings, so this article will focus on this guide for UK university rankings. When it comes to ranking universities worldwide, one of the three most highly regarded university rankings is the QS World University Rankings, which shows the world's best 1,000 universities.
How do the different rankings look?
In the UK, the top three universities for 2021 are the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and the University of St Andrews. On the other hand, globally, the top three universities are still the same as in the previous nine years: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, and Harvard University.
Compared to the global rankings of previous years, there are several interesting changes:
UK universities seem to have become less attractive for international students, with only Imperial College London ranking up since last year. According to the Guardian, this may be due to insecurities tied to Brexit, subsequent implications for universities' budgets, as well as a decline in teaching quality and research impact.
In the US, only 34 universities have improved their position in the ranking since last year, while the amount of US universities in the top 100 decreased from 32 to 27 since 2015.
While UK and US universities seem to rank lower in worldwide rankings, Asian universities show considerable improvements in their rank over the past ten years: more than 25% of the world's top 100 universities today are found in China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
What criteria do different rankings use?
The Complete University Guide uses, amongst others, the following measures:
The data comes from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) which is responsible for collecting, analyzing, as well as publishing the data. The Complete University Guide ranking assigns different weights to these measures, allowing for the calculation of a mean score. This takes into account each university's subject mix, ultimately attributing each university a rank depending on its calculated mean score. One interesting point regarding the rankings created by The Complete University Guide is that this guide puts more weight on student satisfaction and less weight on research intensity.
In comparison to the Complete University Guide, the QS World University Rankings take into account the following six measures and weighs them respectively:
Similarly to the UK rankings, universities are ranked based on a calculated mean score.
In essence, both methodologies are the same: data on universities is collected, the measures are weighted, and a mean score is calculated that is then used to rank universities. Whether or not these criteria in reality reflect what makes a university excellent – that is a different question. For example, the QS World University Rankings has previously been criticised for its large emphasis on academic reputation.
How are these rankings relevant to you?
1. Find out how the subject you want to study ranks at different universities.
All guides include subject-specific rankings which you should look at instead of the overall rankings as sometimes while a university ranks highly on the overall ranking, it may rank low on the subject you are planning to study.
2. Look at the university rankings in the specific country you want to study.
If you already know that you want to study in a specific country, you can look at national rankings within that country. You can easily do that in the above guides by filtering the worldwide ranking by region.
3. Look for other evaluations of the university you are interested in and do not base your decision solely on university rankings.
Try to talk to students who already study at your chosen university, ask how satisfied they are with their overall study experience, and try to visit the university if possible. Many universities organize annual open days - or at least virtual open days during this global pandemic. These impressions you gather can give you a good gut feeling of where you may want to study.
4. Create your own ranking.
Focus on what factors are important to you personally and weigh them accordingly. For example, active student life and culture is often an important part of students’ university experience which is not covered in any official ranking. How much emphasis do you place on small study groups, great supervision, good research reputation, teaching quality, costs of living, distance to your hometown and friends/partner?
Ultimately, the university you choose to continue with your studies might end up being a compromise of all these criteria, and the university’s ranking simply becomes one of these factors.
Hannah Lettmann is a PhD researcher in the Organisations & Innovation research group in the School of Management at University College London. Hannah’s research focuses on different facets of creativity, such as creative leadership, creative problem-solving, as well as creativity and dishonest behaviour. She received her BSc in Psychology from the University of Münster in Germany. Hannah also holds an MSc in Psychology from Lund University in Sweden, as well as a Master of Research from University College London.