University rankings: how do they work and are they important?

13 September 2016

From study options and career choices, to campus life, exchange opportunities, and where your friends go, there are many things you'll take into account when deciding on which university to choose. These days there are also university rankings.

As the name suggests, university rankings rank universities. However, each ranking organisation measures institutions in different ways, using different criteria, and different weightings of similar criteria.

Rankings can take into account research quality and revenue, surveys of academics and employers, staff-student ratios, and statistics on demographics such as the number of international students.

Essentially, there are three major global university rankings that most people tend to pay attention to.

QS World Ranking of Universities

The QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World Ranking of Universities assesses university performance across research, teaching, employability and “internationalisation” using six performance indicators, which carry a different weighting when calculating the overall scores.

Four of the indicators are based on ‘hard’ data, while the remaining two (Academic Reputation and Employer Reputation) are based on global surveys – one of academics (more than 94,000) and another of employers (almost 45,000) – each the largest of its kind.

The six performance indicators include:

  • Academic reputation (40%) – a global survey of more than 94,000 academics
  • Citations per faculty (20%) – a ‘citation’ means a piece of research being referred to (cited) within another piece of research. 
  • Student-to-faculty ratio (20%) - the number of academic staff employed relative to the number of students enrolled
  • Employer reputation (10%) – a global survey of close to 45,000 graduate employers
  • International faculty ratio (5%)
  • International student ratio (5%)

The final two indicators measure “how successful a university has been in attracting international students and academics” based on the proportion of international students and faculty members.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), formerly known as the Shanghai Jiao Tong index, assesses university performance more heavily weighted to traditional measures of prestige in research, and the world’s most highly recognised researchers, predominantly in the science and engineering fields.

Thirty percent of its score is based on the number of Nobel Prize and Fields Medal* winners employed as staff or are alumni – some of which are awarded decades after the research took place. Another 20 percent is based on having highly cited researchers on staff – generally researchers consistently cited in the top one percent of their field.

ARWU uses six indicators to rank world universities, including the:

  • number of alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (10%)
  • number of staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (20%)
  • number of highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories (20%)
  • number of articles published in Nature and Science (20%)
  • number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index - Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index (20%)
  • per capita academic performance of an institution (10%).

ARWU ranks more than 1800 universities every year, and publishes their top 1000.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings says its results are the only measurement that judges universities across all the areas of teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

THE Rankings Editor Phil Baty said the Times rankings were uniquely comprehensive.

“We use 13 separate performance indicators to judge world-class universities against all of their key missions, including both teaching and research, using tough, global standards,” Baty said.

The performance indicators are grouped into five areas:

  • Teaching (30%) – includes a reputation survey, and measures staff-to-student ratio, doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio, doctorates-awarded-to-academic-staff ratio, and institutional income
  • Research (30%) – includes a reputation survey, and measures research income and research productivity
  • Research citations (30%)
  • International outlook (7.5%) - measures the proportion of international students and staff and international collaboration
  • Industry income (2.5%) – measures how much research income an institution earns from industry against the number of academic staff it employs.

All these major groups also publish rankings on subjects and employability.

Other prominent rankings include US News & World Report Best Global Universities Rankings.

So which university rankings are important?

That depends on you.

Despite the fact they derive their results in different ways and from different sources, all the major rankings are generally consistent when it comes to outcomes for Australian universities – many of which rank relatively high in all.

In fact, Australia punches above its weight, according to the University of Sydney’s External Benchmarks Manager Dr Richard Cook.

“Despite the many differences between global rankings and their methodologies, Australian universities consistently rank among the top institutions globally,” Dr Cook said.

“Australia’s strength in higher education is unparalleled despite its relatively low population.”

You should also bear in mind that with more than 20,000 universities globally, the top-ranked universities all tend to be exceptional.

“The ARWU rankings value prestige and historical reputation, taking into account Nobel Prizes – that may have been won 100 years ago – and focusing heavily on research in the natural sciences,” Dr Cook said. “The top universities in this ranking are dominated by the largest and oldest universities in the world.”

While the Times Higher Education ranking provides more insight on how teaching is perceived at a university, it can be difficult to interpret, Dr Cook explained.

“The QS rankings can give a good indication of how a university is perceived, but lacks nuance when it comes to measuring the student experience,” he also said.

“However the QS Employability rankings can provide an alternative perspective with more focus on student experiences and outcomes.”

If you have a good idea of the subject you’d like to study, then subject rankings might be a good starting point.

If you’re unsure of what to study, or you want flexibility or exposure to the latest multidisciplinary research, it can help to look for universities with a large number of top ranked subjects.

Employability and graduate rankings can also be a good starting point to learn about universities with a focus on exposing undergraduates to employment opportunities and related on- and off-campus experiences.

You can also consult domestic rankings on teaching and learning such as QILT (Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching).

Who else takes notice of university rankings?

Increasingly, employers (especially multinational organisations) use rankings to find universities to source graduates, so attending a high-ranking university can help in a competitive job market.

A university with a track history of innovation and strong industry ties can also be extremely helpful in building experience before entering the workforce and helping to secure a position after graduation.

University rankings aren’t everything

Besides rankings, there are also many other things you should take into account.

A university with a broad range of study options, great student and support services, diverse clubs and societies, modern education facilities, a positive culture and an innovative learning environment is essential.

A good way to find out more about a university is to attend open days and other events for future students where you can meet current and former students, teachers and other members of the university community. Another option is to contact or visit a student centre where staff should be able to help out with any questions you’ve got.

You can also get a feel for what a university is like by taking a tour, visiting the campus for a public event or a museum or gallery, or just visiting their website or social media feeds.

Other things to consider include scholarships (we provide more than 700 scholarships worth more than $100 million every year, and that doesn’t include prizes or college and sporting scholarships), opportunities to study overseas or launch a startup.

You can also learn a great deal about an institution based on its alumni, graduate employment outcomes and the relationship it has with employers.

Major global rankings are less likely to highlight these important features, but most universities offer many opportunities to explore your study options and discover what university life is like.

The bottom line: every ranking is different and each needs to be taken into consideration with a range of other factors, including your individual situation.

*What is a Fields Medal?

Often described as the mathematician's Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal is awarded every four years to two, three, or four mathematicians under 40 years of age by the International Mathematical Union.

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